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The Predator and the Jokester

13 Dec

guest post by Lauren Berlant

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Al Franken has said he’ll resign.  If so, he will be gone from the Senate not because he was a vicious predator but because there was a bad chemical reaction between his sexual immaturity, his just “having fun” with women’s bodies, and this moment of improvisatory boundary-drawing that likens the jokester to the predator. What’s going on?

Lots of people are worrying about this.  Some are using the language of the “witch hunt,” which is a term people use when they feel women coming after men as though the worst guy is the typical one. Some queers are reviving the language of the “moral panic,” in fear that this moment justifies and amplifies erotophobia, an already pervasive hatred of sex that ends up harming women, LGBTQ-identified people—anyone whose sexuality or body or appetites have been historically disparaged by the state, the hygienic bourgeoisie and the religious.

Everyone has appetites: yet many people think their own aversion to sex or ways of managing desire are evidence of moral virtue. Nowhere is this more evident than in how they process the casual pleasures.

Here’s the thing about the jokester and the predator. Power shows its ugliest tentacles most clearly in these figures, yet they seem at opposite extremes. Where the predator creates a situation they can exploit, it is often cushioned by a menacing sense that they control the interactive space and that they’re unavoidable. When a goof performs a joke, which is mostly spontaneous and casual, it is shaped by the play of surprise and hard to process in the moment. Time and fresh awkwardness provide the jokester’s cushion, however slight. In both cases the target suddenly feels baffled or overwhelmed.

It is hard for people to get their minds around this.  It can seem like a false equivalence between the predator and the jokester.  Like all analogies, it’s partial. But now it’s powerful to link them, because both are clearly protected by privilege: by control over time and space and the framing of consequences in domains of capital, labor, institutional belonging, and speech situations where the structurally vulnerable are forced to “choose their battles” or just act like a good sport.

It’s not just women who must feel compelled to take it and eat it: it’s anyone institutionally less powerful, including men when they are. Structural power is expressed in such incidents.  Incidents add up to environments, toxic atmospheres: often people lower in the pecking order find ways to live in them by imitating some habits of the powerful while honing varieties of defensive stealth like sarcasm, gossip, self-harm, or dissociating. Usually they keep quiet about the cost of staying in the game by appearing to be game. This is why keeping things “in scale” is not possible: many forces converge in the intimate encounter with structural power, and they’re often not fully equivalent at the level of event.

But if everyone is vulnerable to harassment and teasing, the world of humiliation and dings, sexualized, racialized, and lower-rank workers are way more vulnerable. It’s not unusual to undergo these encounters as a predictable kind of unwanted overcloseness, whether or not it’s darkly predatory, jokey, or both.  It’s often both.

So, the predator has control of situations; the jokester induces one on the spot. Even the professional comedian, whom you seek out in order to be both surprised and confirmed, is there to jolt you with a pleasure you didn’t specifically ask for.  No one asks to be the predator’s audience: that is why we call their acts violence. We often do enjoy the comedian’s: but there are conventions for what kinds of surprise we’re in for, warm conventions of the inside joke to which comedians usually submit themselves. Spontaneous jokesters, in contrast, make the scene happen just by playing around with you. It’s a different risk, offering different joys too.

I liked Al Franken: I thought he could take Trump in the general election. Both entertainers, they’d argue policy by way of showman putdowns and sarcastic arguments. But Franken got caught on camera treating women as toys, and lost the high ground that protected his self-pleasuring casual power from seeming insensitive or exploitative. Here is how I learned to notice this.

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“He toyed with my body.”  This was said to me by someone who needed my help.  It was 1975, the year Against Our Will came out, when I was 18.[1] There was no “mandatory reporting” then, no public world for turning around the horrible privacy sexual violence pushes you into. People were mainly stuck living lonely with the consequences of other people’s predation at that time: as they largely still are.

I think of it often.  “He toyed with my body.”  I knew even then that “toy” was a complicated verb.  She meant, I wasn’t raped. She meant, I’m already bargaining and I might not be telling you the truth. She meant, I might have been raped. She meant, I might just be using the only verb I have to make the incident utterable. “He toyed with my body.” She meant, he just did enough to enjoy himself without breaking the law as he understood it. She meant, he didn’t know what he was doing either, because he was pretty young, though significantly older.  She meant, he had deniability. She meant, not much happened. “He toyed.” She meant, we were playing around and it got weird. What did he know and when did he know it?  It was clear that whatever he knew thwarted her confidence in whatever she knew.

I don’t know what she meant.  Out of love and care and rapid-firing fear I didn’t ask. I said, “what should I do?”  She told me what she wanted me to do and I did it. Occasionally we talk about it, when she wants to. She doesn’t regret the way we handled it. By avoiding going public she got not to be defined by the toying, giving it a shot at being a thing that happened rather than THE thing that happened.[2]

The conversation completely changed me, shaping different events over time. “He toyed with my body.” As it happens, now I study comedy. I take seriously the relation between aggression and pleasure. I don’t think it only means aggression. But I pay a lot of attention. Not just to jokes, but to the innumerable double-takes that ordinary encounters generate when people are trying to stay in relation. It’s not just in gestures and moments that casual power wields its force. In Chicago at Christmas women come to the city wearing their perfume and mink coats. I ask myself, how much does your pleasure cost, and who pays for it? I think the same thing when I imagine who stayed poor so I could buy a can of cheap cooked beans. Our pleasures can be very expensive when they’re protected by wealth, law and norm; our pleasures can add up when they are casual, too.

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art by Frances Stark

The next time you hear your voice bleat, “It was just a joke,” ask yourself: who made you the boss of genre? And when something affronts you, slow things down: who made you the boss of genre? This should be a genuine question: not a rhetorical one. I don’t mean to diminish your visceral response, just to ask what else. Things happen after the trigger and its flood or the bargaining that makes someone laugh it off or plunder language for words like “toy.”

You can know something at high speeds; you can learn something at slow ones. The joke might be, as Ralph Ellison wrote, a yoke.[3] But there could also be a difference among a disturbance, a tweak, a good surprise, and a harm. Sometimes, like now, a whole set of various “we’s” are tired of being better in the situation than the person or community that fouls us is. Sometimes, like now, revenge is the only efficient justice people feel they have, after all the gossip and HR fails. But reflexive revenge will surely not solve the problem of scaling social jostling, casual play, violence, intimacy: or sex. It’s a time to organize social ways of derailing toxic environments, along with the thrilled aha, scorn and whatever else continues to see sex as a dirty appetite that other people have.

Good play involves trust, but how do you build it at the same time as you’re saying NO! to a world that coddles the toying bully and the aggro one?  Maybe trust’s not a high priority now. It’s a problem. I’m not kidding.

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Thanks to Joshua Clover, Joe Fischel, Dana Luciano, and Tavia Nyong’o for helping me write to the tenth draft.

Notes

[1] Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will:  Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

[2] I learned to notice this from Elspeth Probyn’s argument that the minimizing rescaling of assaultive events has been a powerful strategy in queer autobiography—and, clearly, not just queer. See Outside Belonging  (London: Routledge, 1996), 98.

[3] Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” in Shadow and Act (1958; New York: Random House, 1964): 45-59.

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Thinking Bad Sex

4 Nov

By Jane Ward

Jane Ward is a guest blogger from the University of California Riverside and the author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015).

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Many of my students’ comments about sex have surprised me in recent years, and regrettably, this is not because they are introducing me to interesting erotic subcultures I haven’t yet encountered, or to inspired, new sexual terminology. No, it’s that some of them define sexual assault with such a broad brush that I nearly fall out of my chair. Some tell me that any sex involving alcohol or drugs is, by definition, non-consensual and potentially rape. Others tell me that all unwanted sex is rape (or “at least a form of violence “), including when someone offers to give a blowjob they don’t really want to give because they feel general social pressure to conform to hook-up norms, or when someone consents to have sex with their partner when they are tired and not into it.

Some students tell me that queer people my age are too obsessed with sex practices, and that queer liberation is about identity-based self-determination (the freedom to identify in multiple and evolving ways, mostly on the internet). I tell them I disagree with their framing of many of these points. I tell them about how sometimes people choose to have sex, and also choose to drink alcohol before they have sex. I tell them about Nicola Gavey’s distinction between rape and “unjust sex, “‘ and how heteronormativity and patriarchy set up the field of hetero sex to be a vast expanse of unwanted and unsatisfying sex for women. A rigged and unjust system? Yes. Rape? No.

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Rape is not a metaphor, I tell them. I tell them I think we need more and better language to describe the bad sex that many of us consent to, and that developing this language will also allow us to see that “consent ” is hardly the endgame when it comes to good, and maybe even ethical, sex.

Cultural flashpoints, like the recent news about Kevin Spacey’s pattern of sexual harassment, can throw these apparent divides into even sharper relief. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I saw many queers posting with fury about how Spacey had set back the lesbian and gay movement by reinforcing the gay pedophile myth. They declared that his reference to being gay was a distraction and a manipulation. They said he was using being drunk as a way to excuse sexual assault. Some called him a rapist before any evidence of forced penetration had been presented. Again, I was shocked by how quickly queer people were making facile and confident conclusions—Spacey is the same as Weinstein! —with relatively little information and with what seemed to me to be an anachronistic sense that it’s our job, as queers, to anticipate and prevent straight people’s most outlandish fears about us (like that Spacey’s actions mean all gay men are pedophiles).

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The claim that Spacey had abused and sullied the otherwise beautiful act of “coming out” seems to me especially bizarre and off-the-mark. For one, everyone in Hollywood, Spacey’s social world, already knew he was queer, making this ineffective as a distraction within the industry. Spacey’s coming out was more likely an obligatory offering to the public, who demand that celebrities (and all people) account for their sexuality with an easily consumable identification and narrative. Had Spacey not explained himself as gay, the media frenzy about the homosexual element of the story would likely have eclipsed what was truly important: 1.) that Spacey sexually harassed a 14-year-old boy by drunkenly laying on top of him, scaring and later traumatizing him, and 2) that Spacey acknowledged the harassment, apologized, and said he was “truly horrified. ”

Before I had a chance to think through how I might draw upon the power of queer, feminist complexity to characterize what Spacey had done to Rapp, I was overwhelmed by the panic emerging from mostly gay white male commentators. Spacey is a pedophile! Spacey is gay! So now everyone will think gays are pedophiles like they used to! Given our history of criminalization and subjection to false accusations of child molestation, gay men and lesbians have good reason to be vigilant about how the public perceives our relationship to children. But wrapped up in this panic are also other presumptions fueled by assimilationist forces in the gay and lesbian movement and mainstream/white feminist responses to sexual violence.

The mainstream gay critique of Spacey’s “inappropriate timing ” to “finally come out ” seemed to me very clearly anchored in a belief I do not share—that coming out is a genuine moral obligation, a proclamation of tremendous significance, and an act of finally telling truth about oneself. What if you feel, as I do, that coming out is a tedious social requirement designed to appease straight people and dumb down the complexities of queerness by telling a tired story about how you always knew you were different, how you are just like straight people except for your “love of the same sex “, and so on? From that view, “coming out ” almost always diminishes us, even as it may feel empowering. It’s almost always “bad timing, ” because it is almost always timed to help straight people understand us—in other words, it is timed to accommodate heteronormativity. It makes perfect sense to me that in this moment of global attention to his sexual assault of boys and men, Spacey would believe this is precisely the time to do that discursive thing we require of people who are oriented toward the so-called same sex: tell a story that explains why he was attracted to boys and men in the first place.

Critiques of Spacey’s apology seem to be forged by the same blunt mainstream feminist instrument that my students often bring to their analysis of what counts as sexual assault. As Sarah Schulman has described so vividly, we are living in a time in which many young feminists are not interested in why sexual assault happens, because to even ask that question is to potentially extend a degree of humanity to the rapist, who should burn in hell or be locked up for life. I find myself wishing torture upon rapists as much as the next feminist, but I also want to see us undo rape culture systematically, rather than focus purely on how we can partner with police to lock up rapists one by one. Somehow, I have become afraid to ask in my classroom the very questions that I know we must be asking: what happened to men’s humanity, did they ever have it, and how can we repair them? How do we address sexual violence and oppose the prison industrial complex at the same time? Does restorative justice work in cases of sexual assault? (See INCITE’s The Revolution Starts at Home to begin thinking about this). How do we distinguish between rape, on the one hand, and all the other bad sex people have out of obligation, self-doubt, fear, and confusion, on the other?

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No one I know thinks that Kevin Spacey’s sexual harassment and possible assault of teenagers, or adults, is worthy of defense. That’s a given. Sexual harassment and sexual assault—by which I mean repeated, unwanted sexual propositions and forced sexual touching, respectively—are violations. And they are often, though not always, traumatic for the people who experience them. But the rush to meme-ify sexual harassment and assault with our righteous rage, and to reduce our thinking to the level of “what will straight people think??! ” is hardly our best way forward. For me the question is, as always, how do we draw upon decades of feminist and queer activism and theorizing to see our way through the complexities of sex and its intersections with violence?

 

Structures and Events: A Monumental Dialogue

20 Sep

Two noted scholars of indigenous and black culture and politics Jodi Byrd and Justin Leroy sat down to dialogue about #MonumentsMustFall.

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Jackson, from behind. Photo credit: Eric Gary Anderson

By Jodi Byrd and Justin Leroy

Justin Leroy: Since white supremacists clad in hoods of free speech descended on Charlottesville and clashed with the “alt-left” (i.e. those who aren’t Nazis or Nazi sympathizers), Confederate statues, plaques, and memorials have come down across the country. Good. By any means necessary. Our White-Supremacist-in-Chief disagreed—after blaming the rally’s violence on “both sides,” he lamented “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns, and parks.” Typical neo-Confederate fuckery so far. What he tweeted next was meant as an ominous warning: “Who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” But sometimes the right goes so far off the rails that it circles back around and starts making sense to the left. Like when pro-slavery ideologue George Fitzhugh described Northern factory capitalism as “a war of the rich with the poor, and the poor with one another,” one might be forgiven for taking Trump’s question seriously (after the initial shock of taking Trump seriously wore off). What exactly is the difference between Lee and Washington or Jefferson? There is no kinder, gentler slavery, and no good Virginia slave owner.

This question has vexed me for a while. When Yale students mobilized to change the name of Calhoun College I was supportive [See also “The Student Demand” here on Bully Bloggers. -ed]. No black student should ever have to address the head of a residence hall named after a slave-owner “master.” But I was also frustrated. Why Calhoun? Why were other, arguably equally compromised figures able to escape the symbolic purge? Why do Confederates seem to be the only line in the sand well-meaning liberals can recognize? As far as targets go, they’re a low-hanging fruit, since condemning Confederates lets Northerners feel good about pointing out how bad and racist Southerners are without having to confront the skeletons in their own closet. But the question of Confederate exceptionalism remains.

Do I think the Founders are morally superior to Confederates when it comes to race and slavery? No way. Jefferson inflicted tremendous physical and sexual violence on those he enslaved. Washington devoted tremendous resources to capturing runaways. And yet, actual history notwithstanding, Confederate symbols are exceptional for the way they mobilize white supremacists in the here and now. Figures such as Jefferson are too-often sanitized so they can be used to represent universalism, progress, and American “founding values,” but this strikes me as a distinct—if closely related—problem. The best analog to Confederate symbols might be Native mascots, which normalize and produce amnesia around indigenous genocide and ongoing colonialism, rather than Columbus, who we should recognize as a horrible person historically and not celebrate, but does not get mobilized as a contemporary symbol of white supremacy. That being said, these kinds of observations should be our ending point, not our starting point.

Jodi Byrd: I like the way you parse out the symbolism and the stakes in what you’ve written above, especially as you articulate the similarities between how Confederate symbols and native mascotry mobilize investments in antiblack settler histories. I have been trying to come to these questions from the other side, thinking that there is a way that this debate normalizes Washington and Jefferson, and by extension Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, in order to ultimately demobilize any critiques of them. Washington and Jefferson were slave-owning Indian-killers and Abraham Lincoln not only served in the Black Hawk war in Illinois but is responsible for the largest mass hanging in US history when he authorized 38 Dakota men to be hanged in Minnesota. These figures do not necessarily mobilize white supremacists, but they do produce amnesia around the scale of their genocidal complicity.

JL: Yes! I was mulling this over all day because as a matter of history I have no interest in defending any of these men or elevating some over others because they weren’t “traitors,” but there does seem to be a real difference in terms of how they function in our present.

JB: Right? Because Abraham Lincoln for all his Indian killing does not will never inspire Confederate support, though here I think many progressives might rally to his defense. There is this nagging sense in the back of my mind that many of these debates signal a presumption of some investment in civility or something equally moderate that elevates Washington and Jefferson over Lee. Or, maybe it is down to this sense I have: If the South had won, they would have likely claimed Washington and Jefferson as founding fathers too.

So, like you, I think there is absolutely a normalization of the Presidency as somehow above historical intent and complicity. Nowhere is that more evident than in how Lee and Stonewall are vilified as traitors while Andrew Jackson and Jefferson are not. Of course, there’s the Civil War (and fascinatingly, Andy Jackson’s political career falls between the Revolution and the Civil War no matter what alternative history Trump has tried to construct), and then there is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

What has been on my mind—along with the recent news that another jury has yet again ruled in favor of Cliven Bundy and his sons —are the ways that we staged these debates even a couple of years ago with the movement to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill with Harriet Tubman. It is clear that the US Treasury under President Obama hit a nerve and there is some deep-seated seething that has been given license to surface under 45. That “replacing” also underlies the “you will not replace us” that the neo-Nazis shouted in Charlottesville a few weekends ago. The irony, of course, is that Andrew Jackson is the author of the Indian Removal Act and responsible for carrying out the displacement of Indians that both Washington and Jefferson anticipated and longed for. The US has, in other words, a history problem. It keeps looking to Europe for signs of some genocidal nationalism that it can name and displace so that it does not have to confront the very core of its own creation. When the genocide of American Indians can be recast as dispossession or conquest, when slavery can be reframed through kinship and labor, and when the struggle between North and South can serve as a sign of some exceptional atonement for the original sin of chattel slavery, then the United States has managed to resell a narrative of purity rather than transform the foundational conditions of its creation.

What if we understood the faces of those marching in Charlottesville as the face of US settlement as well as through the broader European context of fascism? What if we understood the problems of race and colonization as endemic to the nation and not solved through the rearrangement of statues. Geraldo Rivera tweeted out “If #RobertELee is to be erased from history, why not erase #ChristopherColumbus whose arrival ignited genocide of Native Americas?” I still refer to such discursive moves as a cacophony of histories, but it is clear in the competition that Columbus is a bridge too far, and that settlers continue to use Black and Indigenous experiences to silence each other. Still, why not Columbus? Many states and cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Do we need these historical signs to serve a past? Supporters of Illinois’ racist mascot Chief Illiniwek still insist that without him dancing every halftime and without their beloved “war chant” and “Oskee Wow Wow,” people would forget that Indians ever existed at all. But in “retiring” him, he only became stronger. Like Obi Wan Kenobi—the structures of white possession that propel the creation of Confederate moments and dancing Indian headdresses as remembrance don’t go away when the monuments or mascots are removed. And that is for me is also part of the stake in this conversation.

And evoking Illinois in this conversation just brings us back to civility. And the presumed savagery it opposes.

JL: OMG don’t even get me started on Hamilton and the idea of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. I get that the soundtrack is cute, but Hamilton represents the problem we’re discussing in microcosm. Why actually reckon with histories of slavery and genocide when we just can cast actors of color in the roles of slaveowners and Indian killers and pretend the problem is solved? I think your idea of the Holocaust as the only legible genocide in U.S. political discourse and European fascism as the only legible model for authoritarianism shows us how deeply entrenched the redemptive vision is, even among progressive thinkers. I was frustrated, horrified, angry at the response of several black scholars —and it must be said, particularly those at elite, private institutions. Despite respecting their work in other contexts, the failure of failure imagination among these scholars was telling. Fantasies of federal intervention against white supremacists (which has never worked—both in the sense that the government has never had the will to protect substantive black rights over white “rights,” whether in the 1870s or 1960s, and for the way in which black rights are staged as the extension of a federal authority that further erodes indigenous sovereignty). Others expressed surprise that we were still dealing with white supremacy or stressed the need for civilized discourse is of even greater importance in these trying times. All I can say is “LOL.” Considering that all are experts in black history, this is a problem of ideology, not knowledge. Even when we admit that white supremacy lay at the foundation of the United States and continues to be its primary operating feature, we still can’t imagine an outside to it—even some of our most radical visions are inclusionary and assimilative rather than revolutionary. What we think we’re condemning as a fatal flaw is actually not fatal because deep down we believe it can be redeemed. If not redemption, then what are our other options? This failure of imagination is why I think we need to engage ideas of decolonization much more robustly. Drawing on the intellectual history of the black freedom struggle, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza has said, “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.” The idea being that if we were to truly address the problem of anti-black racism in all its dimensions, we would necessarily make the world better for all people. I don’t bring Garza’s slogan up to critique or appropriate it, but to suggest a parallel (or perhaps a corollary in the interest of expansiveness). In this post-Obama moment, when we have seen that even at its greatest heights of success the assimilative model cannot save us, what would it mean to take sovereignty movements seriously as a way of thinking beyond the redemption of the U.S.? To say “When indigenous people get free, everybody gets free”? It seems hard to imagine in practical terms. But we live in a world where a jury twice failed to convict armed white men who faced down and threatened agents of the federal government for trying to take away “their” land, while those same agents of the state had no qualms about forcibly removing and suppressing activists at Standing Rock or in Ferguson. Why is it any harder to imagine a politics grounded in principles of indigenous sovereignty than the reformation of a white supremacist government? I’m curious if debates in queer theory can help us out here. Non-identitarian, anti-assimilationist queerness is one of the most generative tools for imagining new political orientations. I think it’s telling that one of the central tenets of queerness, antinormativity, has recently come under suspicion by ostensibly leftist queer thinkers [See also responses on Bully Blogger, here and here. -ed]. So there’s not only a failure of imagination, but the active effort to police political imagination. Obviously there’s been much work on queer theory from a Native studies perspective, but I wonder if there’s a way to integrate discussions of indigenous sovereignty with non-identitarian and anti-normative forms of queerness to begin thinking about responses to white supremacy that are not bogged down by an inability to think beyond the continued legitimacy of the United States.

JB: You capture the conundrum here—the desire for an inside, the impossibility of an outside, and the fatal flaw of imagining decolonization through the maintenance of a kindler, gentler United States. That is still built on lands stolen from Indigenous peoples. Because when it comes down to it, that conditional possibility of belonging is so profoundly engrained—“blood and soil!”—that land becomes the fundamental sticking point and territorial issue for all claims forged in relation to it. Land is the source of power, identity, belonging, and sovereignty. And land is in part why discussing monuments is so fraught and difficult. We can take down all the Lee, Jackson, Jefferson, Washington, Cook, and Columbus monuments that litter the cities and towns of this nation, but the structural intent behind putting them up in the first place remains written onto the land. Those monuments order space, naturalize possession and dispossession, and even in their absence continue to produce the ownership of land as the only path to freedom. So in thinking further with you about the possibility queerness, antinormativity, and non-identitarian formations might offer as responses to white supremacy, I think we have to consider how such ways of being might themselves be shaped by relationship to and through land. My first thought in response to most of the liberal accounts for the rise of Trump is that it is frustratingly predictable that the critiques of identity politics come from the most transparently identitarian formation of them all—white men. But I do think that even queer and antinormative tools run into binds when confronted with indigeneity, indigenous sovereignty, and indigenous relationalities to land. In Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, for instance, a half-remembered Cherokee ancestry becomes the justification for naming a child Igasho (a name, by the way, that spawns as much from the Tauren in World of Warcraft as it does from any generic “Native American” culture or language). Perhaps that returns us to the imperative provocation of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother. How might we reframe kinship and relationality away from the patria of white supremacy and its continued insistence on familial bonds that were destroyed through slavery and genocide?

JL: Ah! I definitely agree that often radical politics, even (especially?) queer politics, ignores or refuses to engage with colonization. Your work shows us that there can be no true radicalism without taking indigenous sovereignty seriously on its own terms. But this is where I think there’s actually a real opportunity for generative discussion—or maybe generative tension. Hartman and others make the case that some form of ontological loss or absence is the foundation of blackness in the Americas. And so there is a strong current in black studies today that goes against the idea that black people can heal the injuries of slavery by claiming rights or land or belonging. I think some of that same impulse it at work when queer theory embraces antinormativity—an openness to rethinking everything we know about kinship, belonging, ownership, individuality, and yes, even land. None of this can be taken for granted, and of course these kinds of theoretical linkages would have to be substantiated by a lot of on the ground organizing. But it’s the only way out I can see. I wonder if the recent ruling reversing the 2007 decision that stripped Cherokee freedmen of tribal citizenship is a small opening for this kind of politics. A fraught relationship, that began in violence, with the potential to open up new frameworks of belonging that account for both the history of enslavement and struggles for indigenous sovereignty.

JB: A fraught relationship, indeed. And I’m with you that the only way out is through rethinking what we know about kinship, belonging, ownership, property, land, and individuality. But more, we have to think about what struggles for indigenous sovereignty might mean as we untangle the stack and compounded histories of colonialism here in the Americas. The ruling on the Cherokee Freedmen is a good start, and the Cherokee Nation seems to agree. Finally. But what I hope for my own Chickasaw Nation is that we can come to an expansive understanding of grounded relationality that resists settler state modes of sovereign power and brings us back to the fundamental revolutionary idea that power and transformation can be found in the tearing down of walls as much in the building of them. In the end, the quality of our struggle against the structures of colonialism will be determined by what we chose to dismantle.

 

Necrocapitalism, Or, THE VALUE OF BLACK DEATH by Kwame Holmes

24 Jul

Kwame Holmes is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado-Boulder. He reads the history of modern cities and social movements through a black queer studies frame. His work has appeared in Radical History Review, Occasion and No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies. He is at work revising a book manuscript entitled, Queer Removal: Liberalism and Displacement in the Nation’s Capital. Follow him at @KwameHolmes

 

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If there is any axiom for home buying, it is that location is everything. Home prices flair up or down subject to factors that range from the convenience of mass transit in urban areas, one’s distance from highways in suburban ones, the availability of high-performing schools, access to natural beauty, cultural amenities, broadband service, a high-rise view and more. Because consumer demand drives land value in the residential market, the real estate industry translates visceral human response –“I love (or hate) this place”– into an “objective” home price (1).

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And few factors influence home price more than a listing’s proximity to violence. Given this, indulge me in a small bit of storytelling. On a hot July afternoon, along the major thoroughfare between a small, well-heeled suburb and a large Metropolitan area; a latino man in his 30’s becomes agitated at the sight of a black driver. The former closely tails the later, eventually forcing both cars from the road. The aggressor leaps from his vehicle and walks towards his target on foot. Adrenaline and cortisol course through his veins. He pays glancing attention to the shadow of a 4-year-old girl in a safety seat, strapped into the back of the black driver’s car. His hand hovers over the handle of a firearm, ready to draw and fire at a moment’s notice. Still behind the wheel, the black driver attempts to ease the tension, telling the aggressor of the gun in his glove compartment and warning against a violent encounter. But his pleas for sanity fall on deaf ears. Taking position at the front of the black driver’s car, the aggressor opens fire into the driver side window, shooting his victim in front of an adult woman passenger and her no-longer-innocent child. The wild and unprovoked shooting garners national media attention, and the once anonymous suburb finds itself infamous for a mounting trend in road-side homicide.

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A large body of literature within criminology tells us that home prices in the well-heeled suburb should react to this tragedy with a sharp downward turn. In a 2006 article published in Quantitative Criminology, George E Teta (et al.) assert that homicide, unlike other types of crime, most directly correlates with declines in home prices (2). Other studies indicate that homicide is particularly impactful in high-end neighborhoods where the rarity of violent crime draws an outsized media response (3).

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Nonetheless, in the year since officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in Falcon Heights Minnesota, under nearly identical circumstances as I describe above, home prices in the St. Paul suburb rose at an impressive clip of 13%; the area’s most robust bull market since the sub-prime speculative bubble (4). Obviously, the fact that Yanez was a member of the St. Anthony police department at the time of the shooting differentiates my story from the sad reality of Castile’s death. But there’s a strong case that the real estate market should have put the brakes on Falcon Heights home prices. Diamond Reynolds’ widely viewed Facebook live video did not only make Philando Castile a globally trending hashtag, it brought unexpected infamy to Falcon Heights and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests threatened to further deteriorate the area’s desirability.

Falcon H

Indeed, corporate actors across multiple industries often fret that recent attention to police violence and anti-brutality protest negatively impacts their bottom line. Earlier this year, “pro-business” legislatures in a dozen states debated versions of law that would charge activists with a crime should public protest drive revenue away from local business. Liability insurers are also concerned. Risk Management Inc. cancelled the Sorrento Louisiana police department’s liability policy after a series of pricey racial discrimination lawsuits made them too much of an insurance risk. Recently, a close friend who works in non-profit advocacy shared with me (on condition of anonymity) that insurers were unwilling to provide their organization liability coverage because of the “consequences” of “political involvement.” As one insurer put it, “you see on the news what’s going on.” Outside of concerns for personal safety, crime rates drive consumers away from a housing market because they place upward pressure on homeowner’s insurance rates and, undoubtedly, proximity to protest has the potential to do the same. And yet, in defiance of market logic and actuarial science, home prices in Falcon Heights only continue to rise. Why?

I argue that Castile’s death is not a failure of policing or a constituent of crime anxiety. Rather, Philando Castile was killed by our obsession with growth, and in particular, the middle class’ reliance upon property values for economic security. His killing sent current and potential homeowners in Falcon Heights a clear message: The state, via the police, will protect the long-term value of your home against the stain of blackness. Rather than counterintuitive, the market response to this tragedy becomes predictable when contextualized within the history of blackness’ forced association with value depreciation.

FH Market

Blackness, Visibility and Value

9780520242012Interest in the many tentacles of the carceral state has driven the lion’s share of recent academic scholarship on the outsized power capitalism wields over black life (5). In her foundational book Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes how deindustrialization left populous states like California with surpluses of finance capital, land and manpower amidst a political turn away from redistributionist welfare policy. Rather than pursue universal basic income or full employment, California built prisons; and expanded the punitive power of the criminal justice system in order to fill them (6). The militarization of municipal police departments—so powerfully on display during the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings—has strengthened the bottom line of private defense contractors at the expense of black suffering (7).

Still, the disposal of black lives into the carceral machine is an adjacent, but different, historical phenomenon from the deep association between black visibility and property value loss. Prior to emancipation, black “hands,” as they were counted, functioned as both units of currency and unmatched labor power. Under the control of white masters, enslaved people increased the value of their families’ property portfolio. However, as Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes, after emancipation, sociological and actuarial expertise collaborated to frame black people as congenitally defective–destined for early death and eventual extinction. However methodologically unsound, this new knowledge donned the shroud of objectivity and was incorporated into the first private life insurance offered to black families. Needless to say, this early means of quantifying human potential consistently paid less capital to black families less than non-black ones (8).

As American progressives brought scientific positivism to bear upon urban development, the earliest zoning professionals and planners mapped any neighborhood friendly to black people as a “blighted” habitat that threatened property values across an entire city’s “ecosystem” (9). The establishment of the Federal Housing Authority during the New Deal nationalized the production of risk-assessment maps—a mortgage lender’s guidebook to redlining—and put federal muscle behind the racial biases of urban planning science. Postwar federal urban renewal policy only made individual homeownership near black neighborhoods a riskier gambit, as local governments aggressively deployed eminent domain authority to acquire and demolish neighborhoods that stood in the way of “progress” (10). White homeowners took note, and took advantage of federal mortgage financing to escape into communities like Falcon Heights. These suburban safe havens were far removed from poor African Americans who found themselves without options; hemmed into subsidized housing within Metropolitan America’s most inaccessible geographies. So many of the black people who have lost their lives at the hand of the police—Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling—lost their lives in those same neighborhoods, because police have been empowered to treat poverty with deadly force (11).

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Philando Castile, though, was killed in the suburbs and as I mentioned at the start of this essay, location is everything. To apply the “broken windows policing” frame onto his death is to over-privilege the American inner city within our conception of a global relationship between blackness and value that manifests differently in each local context. More accurately, Philando Castile was killed at a number of crossroads. He was killed in transit, on Larpenture Avenue, a crossroads between St. Paul and a number of suburbs in Ramsey county Minnesota, including Falcon Heights. According to an NPR analysis of the geography of his arrests, he was traveling between St. Paul and Ramsey county suburbs during many of the dozens of times law enforcement saw and stopped him in the Chevrolet that would become his tomb. He was also killed in one of the most well-watched communities in the state. A 2011 Falcon Heights community brochure tells readers, their town was the first community in Minnesota to boast a member of the neighborhood crime watch on every block. In that regard, Castile’s death echoes Trayvon Martin’s; who was killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Most pressingly, he was killed at a major crossroads in American history; a moment defined in part by the middle class’ mounting reliance upon the whims of the real estate market for their own survival.

Broken Glass Rally

If there is any utility in distinguishing between neoliberalism and capitalism, it is that the former term highlights the cultural and cognitive shifts produced by privatization over time. For example, as deunionization and governmental negligence has left more Americans without access to public or private pension programs, those same workers have been forced to rely upon home equity to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Many working and middle-class workers have a fiscal interest in land value as most 401ks allow employees to funnel their contributions into Wall street’s real estate index. White collar employers, like the University of Minnesota, have their own stake in metropolitan land markets as recruiters dangle the prospect of long term real estate investment in front of potential employees. Much in the same way that taxation, welfare and military service produce (however coerced) citizenship and national belonging, the real estate market demands its own form of tribute as a condition of the distribution of equity and retirement income. In that sense, the housing market wields a kind of sovereignty over American life, assigning positive value and the right to live to those populations who contribute to its strength and longevity, and demanding the expulsion–to the point of death to those who threaten the same. What we face, in short, is necrocapitalism.

Necropolitics vs. Necrocapitalism

1399478464_4da5d1f5abThe Movement for Black Lives has generated the nation’s first popular conversation about the value of black life. Still, movement advocates tend to describe the police’s devaluation of black life as the state’s failure to recognize African American’s citizenship. Both the left and right’s focus on state agents’ behavior towards African Americans necessarily frames these debates in terms of citizenship. Police boosters claim that #bluelives engage and defeat “the thugs” bent on robbing us of our constitutionally guaranteed right to private property. Critics point out that programs like Stop and Frisk deny black and brown citizens’ due process and suspends their freedom from unlawful search and seizure. To ask if black lives matter, forces the state to account for its failure to protect the “natural right” to “life” black people are promised in the nation’s founding documents. Indeed, one could describe racially biased policing in the United States as an iteration of Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics. The ubiquity of police killings, the impunity which greets anti-black police violence, and the utter predictability of both reveal how often the American state rehearses its power to expose black people to death.

But we must expand beyond Mbembe and the Movement’s concern with the unfulfilled promises of the nation and position Castile’s death as signpost of a necrocapitalist order. Necrocapitalism refers to a powerful contradiction churning at the heart of post-World War II capitalism. On one hand, decolonization, racial liberalism and globalization have produced, quite literally, a narrow pathway out of poverty for once subjugated populations. Here, the ascendency of integrationism in American jurisprudence, professional codes of conduct and popular culture has encouraged black people to attend schools and search for jobs in majority white territory. In turn, across post-colonial Europe, African, Arab, Persian and South Asian migrants flooded into cities built by their natural resources and in search of lifestyles made possible by their labor. In London, these economic refugees were often forced into illicit “hidden homes” (black market rentals carved out of abandoned commercial buildings) or publicly subsidized tower blocks.

On the other hand, while multiculturalism has demanded more diverse Western labor markets, anti-blackness is still central to value assessment in global land markets. This means that liberalization drags black people into the very line of fire, figurative and literal. The 80 identified victims of the Grenfell blaze were not profiled by a police officer blinded by America’s unique history of anti-black racialization. But they, by proxy of their residency in a south London tower block, were similarly targeted for removal from public view. As Hip-Hop activist Akala told the BBC, the tenant management organization purchased highly flammable cladding for Grenfell as part of an aesthetic upgrade. For years, residents lobbied tenant management for funds to repair their building’s faulty electrical systems, and were met with a polite but firm stonewall. Those repairs would have had almost no impact on the building’s exterior—and by extension—the appearance of the surrounding neighborhood. Since the Tony Blair years, borough councils have strategized to remove the “eye sores” of tower blocks, as well as “hidden homes” from the urban landscape. More research needs to be conducted on south London’s hidden homes project, but a preliminary scan of media reports reveal that urban reformers hoped to help tenants “escape” exploitation by bringing them “out of the shadows” and “into the light of day.” These “regeneration” projects function similarly to urban renewal policy in the United States, displacing poor Londoners into various states of housing insecurity, including permanent homelessness. Once displaced, they are more vulnerable to attack from white supremacists, ill-health, street crime and police harassment.

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Though differently produced, Philando Castile’s death and the Grenfell tower tragedy were animated by the same economic order, one that requires black people to cross metropolitan and national borders to survive and countenances the removal of black life in tribute to value. In the wake of tragedy, pushes for reform have found new life. The English parliament is as focused on enforcing safety regulations in tower blocks as American city councils have been on forcing officers to wear body cameras while on patrol. Yet, as police killings continue and Grenfell survivors find themselves unable to trade sympathy in for permanent housing, a reform agenda feels like little more than wallpaper applied to rotting dry wall.

What then, can we do? We must grapple, simultaneously and at a cognitive level, with how we understand blackness and how we assess value. There may have been a time when we could say that markets quantify our desires and reflect them back to us. But our coevolution with capitalism has progressed beyond that sort of linear, direct relationship. Now to oppose the devaluation of blackness is to oppose how markets assess value itself. Perhaps then, the only way to break free from a necrocapitalist order is to demand a society that rejects any coherent system of value assessment. One that makes space for diverse and multiple modes of living; rather than demanding market territory for each identity category. Doing so may allow black people to choose whether or not it’s worth the risk to travel through any geography where the free market’s deadly logics are so densely concentrated.

_________________

Notes:

  1. Here I am in conversation with Eva Hageman’s dissertation, “The Lifestyle: Economies of Culture and Race in Reality Television,” NYU 2016.
  2. George E. Tita, Tricia L. Petras, Robert T. Greenbaum, “Crime and Residential Choice: A Neighborhood Level Analysis of the Impact of Crime on Housing Prices” Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
  3. Joel Best, Random Violence: How We Talk About New Crimes and New Victims (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1999).
  4. Data drawn from Zillow.com on June 29, 2017.
  5. Recent exceptions include, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016); David P. Stein “This Nation Has Never Honestly Dealt with the Question of a Peacetime Economy”: Coretta Scott King and the Struggle for a Nonviolent Economy in the 1970s” Souls 18, 1 (2016); N.D.B Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (University of Chicago Press, 2014); Devin Fergus, “The Ghetto Tax: Auto Insurance, Postal Code Profiling and the Hidden History of Wealth Transfer,” Beyond Discrimination: Racial Inequality in a Postracist Era (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 2013).
  6. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2007).
  7. Elizabeth Kai Hinton From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2016).
  8. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  9. David Freund, Colored Property (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  10. I refer here to a significant literature in urban studies, but on the psychic trauma’s left behind by urban renewal. I most recommend Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: Ballantine, 2004). Whether or not one endorsed urban renewal policy, everyone was left with the impression that black communities could be leveled to the ground at a moment’s notice.
  11. Here I am referencing broken windows policing. For an excellent review of recent scholarship on broken windows see, Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton ed. Policing the Planet, Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (London: Verso Books, 2017).

 

Rapture and Risk on Campus in the Age of the Sexual Security State

6 Jun

Laura Kipnis and Jennifer Doyle Explain It All To You……

By Lisa Duggan

In 2013 I read a stunning short article on the notorious Steubenville rape case by Joann Wypiejewski in The Nation, “Primitive Heterosexuality: From Steubenville to the Marriage Altar,” with the subtitle “Straight culture teaches its children that sex is either of the jungle or the picket fence.” Wypiejewski rejected the stark melodramatic terms of reigning descriptions of “rape culture” to place sexual assault on a spectrum with the normative coercions and inequalities of heterosexual courtship. She then took an extra breathtaking step to indict the supposedly adult model of ideal marriage that ends courtship as the site for the very abuses assigned to “rape culture.” She closed by looking not to the expansion of marriage to same sex couples, but to queer sexual cultures for models of sexual ethics:

Frankly, heteros have nothing to teach homos beyond, maybe, how to endure childbirth. If the zeal to arrest toddlers for stealing a kiss and to lock away teenagers for having stupid, drunken, nasty sex is an indication, the lesson ends once the babe is through the birth canal. The opposite—that heteros have something to learn, from the history of gay liberation rather than marriage equality—is surely true.

This is not to romanticize homosexuality. Regardless of the subjects, sex is a mix of rapture and risk, sweetness and cruelty or something more humdrum. But because history did not present gay people with the open choice of the jungle or the picket fence, they developed an alternative culture, a relational language and set of ethics not just to avoid a trap but to have at least a decent experiment, a decent anonymous encounter, a decent first time—not necessarily a transcendent one (though maybe), but not an awful one—and a different sense of family. Gay kids may drink or damage themselves and others for all the reasons anyone in this society might and more, but gay culture doesn’t teach its kids that the surest route to sex is through a bottle and a lie. Straight culture teaches that.

So OK, maybe Wypiejewski romanticizes gay culture a wee bit, forgivable for a straight lefty feminist with a galvanizing point to make. She is also elaborating the point of Douglas Crimp’s famous defense of queer “promiscuity” as a resource rather than a scourge in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the current continuation of the various crises over sexual assault, Laura Kipnis has weighed in with a book that shares some of Wypiejewski’s points, but misses others. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper Collins 2017) sounds a crucial, complacency piercing alarm about the way Title IX investigations of sexual assault on campus have veered widely afar from the goal of fighting gender inequality (as Title IX was designed to do when added to the Higher Education Act in 1972) to become an underground wave of secret tribunals with inconsistent and unaccountable rules and outcomes.

I think Kipnis is largely correct about what has happened since Title IX’s purview was expanded to cover sexual assault in 2011. Though the confidentiality rules prevent any of us from really knowing much, Kipnis makes illuminating use of a rare breach in that imposed silence—a cache of documents released by accused Northwestern professor Peter Ludlow, who left his tenured philosophy position midway through his “trial” without any confidentiality agreement. My own academic network confirms the widespread existence of Kafkaesque “investigations” in which “targets” are not given clear accounts of charges or allowed to defend themselves, in just the ways Kipnis describes via the Ludlow investigations. My informants are disproportionately queer studies scholars, far too many of whom are charged with sexual misconduct (which can include teaching “improper” materials in class) by unstable, closeted or homophobic students. Campus activists against sexual assault routinely ignore this dynamic and many others when they call on us all to simply “believe the students,” the current variation of “believe the women” and “believe the children.” Activist support for administrative procedures that empower accusers (too often simply referred to as “survivors,” a problematic slippage) without question, while minimizing the rights of the accused, is utterly wrongheaded and misguided. These activists do not imagine themselves in the role of accused “target,” but they should, they must. To imagine oneself as possibly accused rather than only as accuser can illuminate the stark imbalances at the core of current practices of investigation and adjudication. And this is one of Kipnis’ major points—empowering the administration to act under cover of confidentiality removes mechanisms of accountability. This is a dangerous path.

Unwanted Advances also makes a key point repeatedly: Narratives of endangered young women bent to the will of powerful male professors (even in the absence of any supervisory role) are not feminist. These melodramatic rescue narratives offer a hero’s role to administrators, who overreach in an old story of young women without agency violated and rescued. This is the territory of “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” the lynching narrative, the progressive era “white slavery” panic. Kipnis points out that efforts to educate young women about how to understand their milieu and defend themselves are too often interpreted as “blaming the victim.” Campus activists would do well to read feminist history and critically examine the emergence of what sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein has named “carceral feminism” and legal theorist Janet Halley has called “governance feminism”—political formations featuring a turn to often punitive state and administrative “solutions,” rather than organizing to address and transform social relations.

But here we begin to reach the limits of Kipnis’ book. The history of feminism that she provides actively erases larger framing contexts that are crucial to the dynamics the author wants to analyze. The story of the emergence of “sexual harassment” as an innovative feminist concept, eventually converted by corporations and university administrations into a military style anti-fraternization policy policed by liability lawyers and elaborated by paid consultants, is mostly missing as the important background to the current spread of Title IX investigations. In the world off campus the context of the feminist “sex wars,” the debates over sex work and sex trafficking, and the horrific years of the “Satanic” child sexual abuse panic in the 1980s, are barely mentioned. Kipnis takes the vocabulary and arguments of these earlier fights (the sex wars discussions of “pleasure vs. danger” and the debates about female sexual agency especially), but rarely credits them.

This narrow framing is symptomatic of the reversed melodrama at the center of Kipnis’ narrative, a frame that features the author in both the victim’s and hero’s role. She was the “target” of a Title IX investigation for an earlier article (and is currently being sued by one of the students she writes about in the book), and in response represents herself as fighting the good fight for free speech and sexual agency. In her book she rarely shares that heroic spotlight with historical or current figures. She likes to pose as the badass, throwing around provocative claims and standing up for those stricken silent by confidentiality rules.

This pose with its narrowing effect becomes especially clear when Unwanted Advances is read alongside Jennifer Doyle’s 2015 book, Campus Sex, Campus Security (Semiotext(e), 2015). Doyle was also involved in a Title IX case that did not go her way, but this experience does not center the analysis of the book. Doyle uses the “problem” of off the rails administrative procedures to widen her vision and take in the precarious state of “the campus” at this moment in neoliberal time. Drawing on the 2011 ‘incident” of campus police pepper spraying non-violent motionless students at the University of California Davis, Doyle makes a series of astute and revelatory connections between campus security and sexual politics through a series of short, staccato chapters filled with quotable insights. At UCD, the Chancellor worried that “non-affiliates” from Oakland (read young black men) would take advantage of “very young girls” on campus and put the university “in violation” of Title IX. From there Doyle looks at race and colonial legacies, the insecurity of students with high tuition and faculty with part time appointments, and the experiences of queer and racialized students and faculty under campus security regimes—considering the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal, the suicide of Tyler Clemeni at Rutgers, the Rolling Stone story of a gang rape later revealed as a hoax at the University of Virginia, the violent arrest of Prof. Ersula Ore for jaywalking at Arizona State, and more.

The point of Doyle’s analysis across all these instances is that the university finds itself vulnerable, positions itself as threatened, and deploys ramped up risk management and security measures for self-defense. In the Title IX cases the university is defending itself from being “in violation” and losing money, not protecting the “very young girls” who are imagined as the ideal accusers, without agency of their own. This comparative framing makes the exclusion of political economic context, and of critical race and queer theory, from Kipnis’ text very clear. Kipnis “includes” race and queer sexuality with a few random comments, one example involving black athletes (where the word “packs” is used), and a few same sex examples that are unintegrated into the analysis. Doyle’s book shows readers what it means to bring these analytic frames together, rather than just use add on unanalyzed examples.

But Doyle does slip into the insupportable “believe the women” posture occasionally. In concluding her account of the Rolling Stone rape hoax story of 2015, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely based on the unchecked facts of an unnamed accuser, she comments “Who cares, really, about what women say? For that matters, who cares about what women write?” (p.21) Um, what? Doyle twists herself into a pretzel trying to avoid criticizing either the accuser or the writer, instead going for the magazine’s staff. It’s a stretch, based on a melodrama of female innocence and male perfidy that she otherwise avoids.

This slip, and others like it, serve to illustrate how pervasive and apparently irresistible conventional sexual melodrama can be, all across the political spectrum. Though Kipnis is countering the melodrama of gendered sexual danger that frames the recent deluge of Title IX tribunals, she fails to note that this story is itself a reversal of another pervasive melodramatic tale—in which innocent men’s lives are ruined by scheming women. The tide of Title IX complaints is in part a justifiable effort to attack the assumptions that supported widespread dismissal of women’s accusations against serial harassers and attackers, who were often protected by administrators in the pre-Title IX era. The rage and frustration generated by decades of such dismissals in part fuel the relentless hostility to “targets” expressed by too many Title IX officers. Now Kipnis counters the counter narrative, with an again reversed tale of scheming women and falsely accused men. Though she acknowledges that this is not the whole story, that sexual assault on campus is real, and that harassers and rapists are sometimes excused and protected, these admissions are throwaway sentences that pop up now and then in the body of a text utterly devoted to a highly gendered melodrama featuring manipulative female accusers and vindictive unaccountable bureaucrats, versus men whose lives are unfairly ruined.

There is a moment in Unwanted Advances when Kipnis reports the events of one of her central cases to a psychiatrist friend, and recounts his speculative diagnoses for one of the young women accusers—borderline or hysterical personality disorder (p. 74). Arguably, this kind of third hand psychologizing crosses a line from hard hitting but illuminating critical analysis to personal invasion. Does this move justify my own speculation that Kipnis may have some unresolved oepidal issues? A father she wants to rescue from a controlling, scheming mother? Just guessing!

Ultimately, both Kipnis and Doyle, like Wypiejewski, want to replace the sensational, melodramatic tales of sexual danger with detraumatizing strategies for thinking about sexual assault (which would involve reducing the demand for anonymity and confidentiality, strategies that only reinforce stigma, and in the context of Title IX, prevent accountability). Doyle specifically calls for placing rape on a spectrum of normative sexual coercions including state regulated marriage and reproduction, while Kipnis points to the need to address “the learned compliance of heterosexual femininity.” Kipnis further calls for assertiveness training and self-defense—student initiated strategies for challenging male aggression. Why not organize, act up, create new contexts for social and classroom life, rather than call endlessly for more and better administrative procedures? Both books emphasize the danger of empowering administrators this way—and surely the example of the administrative persecution of Palestinian students and professors should show us that danger in action. Most broadly, it is the clear implication of Doyle’s book that organizing strategies need to reach beyond inequalities of gender and sexuality to address the context for them, in the political economic context of risk management and global securitization.

Another Day…..

6 May

Hypatia and Cultures of Critique

By Lisa Duggan

Image result for Hypatia journalIt was just another day in academia.  Another obscure journal, another specialized article. Another scholar publishing in a marginalized field, failing to cite the published work in that field.  Another peer review process ignoring the very existence of marginalized scholars and fields.  Ho hum…..

But then things got real.  Some readers noticed and complained, social media went berserk, some editors defended while others apologized, articles were written.  Things got a little crazy, tone wise.  Denunciations!  Accusations! Precious little good contextualizing analysis.

It started when the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism,” in their spring 2017 issue.  Tuvel, a tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, compares the Rachel Dolezal controversy over transracial identity with debates about transgender politics.  She does not engage critical race theory or transgender scholarship. This kind of exclusion is ripe for legitimate critique, especially as practiced by a feminist journal.  Legitimate critique there was galore!

On social media, things heated up in a familiar way.  The derision and denunciation so often found there migrated, mixed with legitimate critique, into an open letter that called for retraction of the article.  It was eventually signed by hundreds of professors, grad students and others. The letter generated an abject apology (reading a bit like a Soviet confession, to my ears) from the associate editors of the journal. This apology produced a disagreement and objection from the editor.  And by this time the whole shabang migrated away from social media and onto the blogs, higher ed press, and more mainstream media.

And so by now everyone is in role!  The academic journal has marginalized critical race and trans scholarship within feminist philosophy, many of the article’s critics are making self righteous demands and personal attacks, some of the apologizing is positively creepy, while liberal and conservative pundits eschew relevant context to cry Witch hunt! Call out culture!  Oy.

Meanwhile back on social media, a few brave souls are cutting through some of the shit.  We at Bully Bloggers have picked out a few posts that illustrate a range of thoughtful, regretful and exasperated commentary that appeared on The Book of Faces to share with you here.  We will add more as we find the good stuff online.  Below are comments from Ani Dutta, with a very nuanced critique, Treva Carrie with a sigh of exasperation and some advice, Talia Mae Bettcher with a cri de coeur and sharp intervention, and Lisa Guenther with some second thoughts after having signed the open letter.

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Ani Dutta:
On Tuvel, Adichie, Dolezal and the Privilege-Identity Distinction
 
I have a feeling that I’m not going to be riding any popularity waves with this one, but I wanted to register my discomfort with the way in which ‘trans / gender non-conforming’ and ‘people of color’ voices have often been essentialized and homogenized in the wake of the controversy on Rebecca Tuvel’s Hypatia article that defends ‘transracialism’ and makes analogies between ‘transgenderism’ and ‘transracialism’. I do not say this ‘as’ a trans/gender non-conforming person of color (categories I use with discomfort given their US-centric hegemonic senses), as I don’t believe that occupying those positions necessarily justifies or gives more credence to the points I’m about to make. But I am referring to these categories, in which I’m often socially placed, simply to make the point that some of ‘us’ (though there’s no ‘us’) might have differing takes on both the Tuvel article and the question of transracialism than the general stance of condemnation and dismissal that ‘we’ have been associated with. So here goes:
  1. The big underlying question first, I guess: I am an agnostic on the issue of transracialism and Dolezal’s identity, and frankly not very interested in resolving that debate any way or other, except to argue that I don’t think we need to dismiss the ontological question of transracial identity (and its defenses) in order to interrogate or critique some of Dolezal’s more problematic actions (e.g. lying about her family past, culturally appropriating the ‘Nubian soul’, taking on the NAACP leadership position, etc.), which are related to her position of white privilege. Though race and gender are obviously not exactly analogous, a similarity here is that one can occupy gender-privileged positions while strongly dissociating from related identities – and the Caitlyn Jenner analogy indeed applies here. Two months ago, Chimamanda Adichie made several extremely simplistic and problematic statements about (apparently all) trans women having ‘male privilege’ at some point in their lives, and many trans women in response pointed out that this was often not the case. In my humble view, the most nuanced responses were ones like Jen Richards’ piece where she pointed out that trans women (like any other gendered group) may have very different narratives and histories of gender dis/privilege. Some trans women or trans feminine / gender-variant people experience little or no male privilege due to early visibility or transition (e.g. Laverne Cox’s narrative), and others like Richards and Jenner have grappled with male privilege for much of their lives, both benefitting from and suffering due to their social assignment as upper-class white ‘males’. In slightly reductionist Marxist terms, in Jenner’s case, the surplus value she accumulated due to her erstwhile male- and continuing class-racial privilege literally enabled and financed her medical transition, over the backs of many less fortunate other (both cis and trans-GNC) people whose labor had gone to produce that surplus value. However, in diametrical opposition to Adichie, now it seems that any reference to some trans women’s past lives and erstwhile male privilege can be conflated with transmisogyny (a trend noticeable in some of the public posts/comments critiquing Tuvel). So, we’re stuck between either all trans women have (or have had) male privilege, or no trans women have male privilege and saying so is transmisogyny. I feel that one must remember that ‘privilege’ and ‘identity’ are distinct concepts and resist their conflation, both in the case of ‘transgender’ and ‘transracial’ identities / identity-claims. Indeed, gender is so crossed and constituted by class and race that many cis men might end up having less privilege than elite cis and trans women; and even cis maleness is not always a privilege in itself (as in the case of Black masculinity, often persecuted as a threat and enslaved through the US carceral complex). All to say that ‘privilege’ and ‘identity’ (social or personal) aren’t linearly correlated in any case, and thus, one can neither adjudicate identity claims based on privilege, nor dismiss mentions or critiques of gender privilege as being transmisogynist in and of themselves (unless one overgeneralizes and gaslights trans experiences of oppression, as Adichie did).
  2. As Tuvel has pointed out, several black/POC and trans scholars have taken complex positions on the question of transracial identity, and people like Kai M. Green and Adolph Reed Jr. have even taken sympathetic stances that inform my own argument in the previous paragraph. Though Reed’s argument, in particular, has problems such as biologically essentializing Jenner at some points, he makes a strong case for the privilege-identity distinction (he doesn’t exactly use that phrase), effectively arguing that one can’t dissociate Jenner’s womanhood from her (erstwhile) male privilege and politics, but the same time hold Dolezal to a rigid notion of white identity. Ultimately, these scholars underline the futility and impossibility of adjudicating ontological identity claims of any sort, and argue that one should rather focus on politics and actions – what one ‘does’ from any given positionality rather than what one ‘really is’. In that regard, as Green argues, the transracial-transgender analogy cannot simply be dismissed in entirety, and trans-POC stances on this issue can’t be essentialized in the ways they often have been in social media discussions during the Tuvel episode.
  3. This brings me more specifically to the Tuvel article: I agree that it is simplistic and problematic on several fronts, and especially fell short in its understanding of trans issues. As critiques point out, it reduces trans identities to a medical-surgical model of transitioning to another “sex” and ignores the trans-GNC critique of sex assignment (using phrases like ‘biological sex’ and ‘male genitalia’); further, it admittedly ignores non-binary subjectivities or practices, makes the sexed body the basis for both cis and trans identity, etc. Ideally none of this should have made past peer review, but these are far wider problems with entire biomedical discourses of transsexuality and are replicated across many academic disciplines, and even in some trans activism, rather than just this article in itself, and her article is not fundamentally making claims on trans identity anyway so they do not necessarily invalidate her main argument (which could still be critiqued, but that is a separate question). Her ‘deadnaming’ of Caitlyn Jenner – which she has apologized for – is again problematic but not reducible to the deadnaming of trans people in general, given that she mentioned the name specifically as a former appellation and not current description (which Jenner herself does on occasion, too), and also that Jenner’s past public identity and associated privileges are already very well known and hardly amount to violent exposure as such. Thus, to make the argument that the very existence or citation of this article amounts to ‘harm’ or violence against trans people and POC (as the open letter to Hypatia implies), to my mind, trivializes the concept of harm / violence and exaggerates the implications of Tuvel’s article (and inflates the importance and impact of paywalled academic articles in general). While I agree Hypatia and Tuvel should be held accountable to higher scholarly and ethical standards, I am uncomfortable with the scapegoating of this particular article and this (pre-tenure) scholar, sometimes by more powerful and institutionally recognized scholars, for much wider systemic issues that she did not initiate and which will not end with the retraction of any one (or multiple) articles. I also agree with critiques that Tuvel should have engaged more with TOC-WOC scholarship, but again this is a more systemic problem with (even feminist) philosophy and similar disciplines, and I wonder how many other Hypatia articles that deal with race in some form would fare on this count.
  4. Also, specifically responding to a public post by a colleague, the Tuvel piece has been accused of managerial whiteness and the violence of abstracting and controlling differences, deciding which differences are equivalent or not, etc. I do appreciate and agree with the argument that philosophy, and academic theorization more broadly, is often guilty of managerial violence and the violence of abstracting differences over material bodies and experiences that theorizers don’t inhabit or share. But again, it seems to be a stretch to zero in on Tuvel’s article as a particularly egregious example of a much wider systemic trend – especially given that she does not make a claim on anyone’s identity per se, nor lay out a cartography of valid / invalid identities, but rather, makes a more specific argument about the potential validity of transracialism as a phenomenon (which one could, of course, disagree with), in the face of widespread dismissals of the same. Further, we have to account for ways that many of us in academia are complicit with the violences of managerialism and abstraction even as we might be aware of and endeavor to work against material violence – for example, analysis or theorization of necropolitics and biopolitics (which I have myself done, among many others), is often literally enabled by the violences perpetrated on trans-GNC bodies, even as it lands us prestigious publications and helps us in the path towards tenure. “POC” scholars (such as myself) who follow the same academic-professional trajectories as whites, even if with more hurdles, are no less complicit in the governmental, biopolitical, managerial structures of academia and of academic knowledge production than anyone else. Further, queer-trans academics and activists – white and POC – have often made *careers* out of abstracting differences and laying out cartographies of identity and terminology. Moving beyond the aforementioned post, the general dismissal of ‘transgenderism’ as a potentially valid usage during the Tuvel episode is nothing if not a manifestation of such managerialism, abstraction and universalism – US scholars, many of them white, deciding for all of us which terms for gender-variance are politically+academically acceptable and which are not (even though white trans activists like Serano have themselves argued in favor of non-pejorative uses of ‘transgenderism’ as a term, as Tuvel points out). Many of my trans-kothi-hijra friends and sisters in India regularly use terms like ‘shemale’, ‘cross-dresser’, ‘transvestite’, etc. that are commonly outlawed in US trans activist-academic discourse. What are these tendencies if not managerialism and white / US-POC saviourism in the guise of protecting trans people from epistemic-linguistic violence, given that such attempts can invalidate people’s self-descriptions and alternative meanings? That a cis white ‘outsider’ scholar is being targeted in this particular case does not undo the wider potential ramifications of such attempts.
  5. Last but not least, moving beyond the specific Tuvel case, it seems important to introspect about why many of us (POC or not) have such a gut reaction to ‘transracialism’, racial self-determination and the analogy between racial & gender identity, while gender self-determination seems to be much easier to accept (even Adichie who generalizes male privilege onto all trans women seems to accept some degree of gender self-determination). Going by my preliminary and not entirely fleshed-out train of thoughts, part of it may have to do with the different ways in which ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are socially constructed, and these differences need to be interrogated more than they have been in recent debates. Broadly speaking, there is a relentless social demand that ‘gender’ be personalized and interiorized. Both conventional cisgender and more trans-inclusive epistemologies of gender (especially in the West) *demand* that we associate gendered embodiments, expressions, behaviors, words / terms, with a deeply *interior* identity (recalling the argument that Foucault famously makes about sexuality) – our gendered actions or embodiments must *mean* something in terms of the ontology of our inner selves, must correspond with a deeply held personal identity (even if that is genderqueer or fluid or agender, inasmuch as these are ‘identities’). Much of our hard-won struggles against biological essentialism and for gender self-determination often remain imbricated in this potentially oppressive ideology, being in some sense the obverse of the cissexist idea that social sex assignment ‘naturally’ corresponds to a gendered essence (inasmuch as an avowal of gender as a deep personal identity becomes the logic for social recognition). ‘Race’, in contrast, is etymologically linked with ideas of common descent and collective lineage, deriving from one’s position within a collective rather than a deeply held personal identity (indeed, US post-racial ideology asks us to [pretend to] forget that race matters for individual identification or social position). To my mind, this contrast between the personalization+interiorization of gender and the collectivization of race seems to be one of the underlying reasons for the discomfort with transracialism and the race-gender analogy. Regardless of the validity or otherwise of transracialism as a ‘real’ phenomenon, it ties us to the oppressive generalization of gender as an inevitable personal essence that all of us must ‘own up to’, in contradistinction to race or ethnicity that are assigned to us or derive from our collective social position. Inasmuch as many of us remain invested in and derive pleasure and validation from personal or ontological identification, I am not, of course, asking for ‘doing away’ with the concept of gender identity as per liberal humanist or TERF arguments. Rather, it is perhaps possible to bracket the question of personal identity in discussions of material differences, social positions and privileges, so as to enable the critique of social hierarchies and individual complicity in power structures, without needing to resort to an adjudication of identity through some external calculus or logic, or the attempt to fix an ontology that we can never really know (whether in the case of race or gender).

Treva Carrie:

this hypatia sitch. lordt.
 i’d like, in fact LOVE, to entertain and act on the idea that academic writing can and does do immense harm to people and communities.
but can we go all witch trials on someone good like George Kelling or all the Ivy league economists and mathematicians that created the financial instruments that facilitated the 2007 financial crisis?
or the inventors of predictive / algorithmic policing or the assholes who are still trying to make that hot weather and crime argument stick?

or if we’re feeling to need to cannibalize, I’d settle for going for someone like a Skip Gates, with his optimism for the molecularization race, his celebration of Linnean racist world geographies (find your roots, lose your healthcare!), or at least getting hyphy on the resurgence of retrograde cultural nationalism within critical race theory/theories of blackness?

Image result for becky with the good hair meme
 but Becky with the controversial argument?  ::yaaaaaawwwn::
Talia Mae Bettcher:

 I want to share my thoughts about the Hypatia controversy. But, I want to be clear that this controversy comes at a time of deep personal crisis on the home-front. This has meant that I have not had the time to process the Hypatia controversy as quickly as I would have liked. It also means that it has been considerably less important to me.

When I signed off on the letter to Hypatia, I didn’t agree with every point that was made. But I agreed with the spirit. For me, the chief concern (aside from the gratuitous “deadnaming” which should have been caught) is the following. It’s not merely that the article does not engage sufficiently with the relevant literature. It’s that while it explores both transness and blackness, it fails to adopt a framework that would centralize transness and blackness as loci of oppression and resistance.  And it fails to provide any evidence that the author reflected upon her subject position.  When non-trans people do trans philosophy, for example, they need to ask questions about their subject position – who are they are relation to oppression? What are their motivations in writing about the trans-related topics? What do they hope to gain? For me, the problem with the article is that there was no evidence of any interrogated subject position, largely because there is no real centralization of transness and blackness as modalities of oppression and resistance in analysis which would require such an interrogation. (If there were, I believe that results of the analysis would have been different).  Simply consider the fact that the author felt it completely appropriate to consider whether Dolezel could call herself black without asking questions about who she was and how she was positioned in asking such questions.
One way to put this is to say, evoking Stryker’s distinction, that while the article examines trans phenomena, it does not rise to the level of trans studies. After all, trans people have long been the objects of investigation. But to do trans studies (and trans philosophy) is to centralize the existence of trans oppression/resistance as a starting point. It is to recognize that trans people have long been curious objects, puzzles, tropes, and discursive levers on the way to somebody else’s agenda. It is to take seriously the idea that trans people can theorize their own experience while negotiating dangerous terrain.  To take part in such a project, as a non-trans person, requires careful reflection upon one’s own political power, one’s own epistemic limitations, and one’s stakes. To ignore all of this and to simply examine trans people on that way to securing some sort of agenda, is of course, to engage in a scholarship that leaves out the voices and the stakes of trans people.
But let’s be clear. This is hardly new. And I think it is important to place the Tuvel’s work within this broader context so that she is not selectively targeted. So many articles in feminist philosophy have been published that, on the whole, simply ignore the existence of trans oppression/resistance in ways that would have mattered. Definitions of ‘womanhood,’ for example, are laid down that implicitly exclude trans women or that take up the issue in ways that are deeply problematic from a trans political perspective. And those articles that do discuss trans issues in depth often fail to embrace the existence of trans oppression/resistance as a central organizing principle – as a core part of the analytic lens. If they had been held to the standard that we are asking for now, they would have never been published at all. This isn’t about Tuvel’s work, then. Her approach to trans issues is not new. This is clearly about feminist philosophy in general.
What is new is the fact that trans philosophy has come into its own.
I’m an old-timer. I was a graduate student when trans studies first began back in the nineties. I have been trying to do trans philosophy within and without professional philosophy for quite some time. When I first began publishing in trans studies there were very few trans people doing work in trans philosophy at all. It was a different time. I was speaking to an old sociologist friend of mine the other day about the controversy. She expressed some discomfort with the intense reaction to the publication of Tuvel’s article. It’s not as if this was J. Michael Bailey, she said! (We had worked together on a response to Bailey’s presentation of his work at UCLA many, many years ago). And it’s true. This is simply not comparable to hostile scholarship of that type.
As I worked, I also saw that some of the work being produced by non-trans people on trans issues were “off.” In part because I felt so isolated, I simply decided, either rightly or wrongly, to do my own work rather than engaging. If I didn’t do this work, who would? By now it’s clear, however, that trans philosophy has come of age. Trans philosophy is happening. And that means that it is imperative for (non-trans) feminist philosophers to ask themselves to what degree they recognize the existence of trans oppression/resistance in their analyses at all and to what degree they understand themselves within that framework. Is it okay to philosophize about trans people without doing trans philosophy? If it’s not, then what does that mean not only for Hypatia, but for feminist philosophy in general?
While this controversy may mark the coming of age of trans philosophy, it is also a bitter reminder of the continuous failure of many white feminist philosophers to centralize racist oppression in their analyses of not only gender, but race itself. After all, critical race theory/philosophy has be around since at least the eighties. These points have been time and again by feminists of color and yet the changes in (white) feminist philosophy have been breathtaking in their meagerness. Not getting the point by getting lost in the theory. Dear Trans* People (especially we white ones): If you think there’s going to be some huge change now, please prepare for disappointment.
All of this said, I care about Hypatia and I care about feminist philosophy. No doubt, different people have had different experiences with Hypatia. But mine have been positive. At time that I wrote “Evil Deceivers,” I doubt that there was any other venue in philosophy for publishing this type of work all. But Hypatia provided me with thoughtful and constructive feedback for improving the paper. And they provided me with this venue. They even went on to do a special issue on trans feminism. Because of this, my shift from my work in modern philosophy into trans philosophy became possible. Hypatia’s support of my work even played an important role in my getting tenure.
There are not many journals like Hypatia in philosophy. And I’m glad that it exists. And if (it’s a BIG if) we’re at all interested in doing work in professional philosophy, then we need journals like Hypatia. But this also means that we need Hypatia to hold itself to standards that are different from mainstream philosophy, standards that mainstream philosophers may not even understand. This puts Hypatia in a highly fraught position. On the one hand, it needs to be the kind of journal that secures reputability within the profession of philosophy. This is crucial in helping junior professors who do work at the margins be taken seriously. On the other hand, it can’t merely replicate the standards of reputability with the profession without annihilating its reason for existence.  Of course, this is precisely the dilemma that all of us who work at the margins face. It’s one of the many double-binds that characterize work at the margins.
All of this is underwritten by the deep intermeshing of oppressions. A journal that expressly takes up a single issues (feminism) is going to be compromised from the get-go. While work may be done to include other forms of oppression and to embrace an intersectional perspective, the very starting point inevitably yields a kind of distortion. Again, as anyone who tries to think intersectionally knows, their work will invariably have this same distortion. This is something that we work against. But it is also something that we, to some degree or other, fail at achieving. It’s the nature of the beast.
I don’t say any of this to excuse Hypatia for what happened. But I do think it is important to frame the issue within the larger context of a shared struggle in “doing philosophy” at the margins and to recognize the treacherous ground on which we attempt to work.
There needs to be accountability. We need to hear something from the Editor of Hypatia. And there needs to be the real work of finding a way to improve the review process that both holds to the appropriate standards without burdening trans people and people of color. This work needs to begin soon. But I do think that there are larger issues at stake.
This has been a painful time. Sea-changes of the type often are. And the fact that most of the discussion has occurred on social media has only made matters worse. I’m not a fan. I wonder if there’s a way to have a real conversation, face-to-face. I don’t even know whether that would be productive. But it would be better than what’s happening. The issues here are important. The changes here are important. And there needs to be something more than blogging and FB updates. Could there be an organized event/discussion to come out of this? And if so, what would that look like?
Lisa Guenther:

Over the past few days, I have posted a few thoughts about accountability.  A close friend (and a few strangers) have challenged me to account for gaps and failures in my own scholarship as a feminist philosopher, and for my responsibilities as a mentor to past and current graduate students.

Let’s start with my own scholarship.  My book on solitary confinement doesn’t engage _at all_ with the fact that queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people, and also people with disabilities and mental illness, are subject to outrageously high rates of police surveillance, incarceration, and solitary confinement.  Nor do I develop an analysis of the way gender or class shape carceral systems, or the intertwining of gender, sexuality, ability, race and class.  While writing the book, I did my best to engage with the perspectives, analyses, and testimonies of people who have survived solitary confinement, and those who have been crushed by it.  But I myself have never been incarcerated, and the people who are closest to me – my family, close friends, and loved ones – are not, by and large, targeted by carceral power.  My life was not torn upside down from one day to the next by an encounter with the police, or the arrest of a loved one.  I still stand behind the book, but it has many flaws, gaps, and silences that I would want to address if I were writing it now, and that I would probably critique in a peer review process.  I’m thankful for criticism of the book, even when it’s painful or difficult to hear, and even though there’s nothing I can do to un-write the book.
But I have never had to contend with personal attacks or insults about my work or calls for retraction, and I don’t want to underestimate the very different kind of pain that this inflicts on a person.  And I want to express my admiration for those who have been supporting Rebecca Tuvel as a person throughout the past week.  I want to apologize to her personally for any pain I caused by signing the open letter requesting retraction, especially given that I was a member of her dissertation committee.  I did not sign the letter lightly, and I do not consider the call for retraction a personal attack.  The letter was addressed to Hypatia as a journal, and I continue to see it as a demand for accountability, made in a very intense, fraught moment, in an effort to stand in solidarity _with_ and _as_ black (and) trans feminist thinkers whose scholarship was marginalized in this article, but not only in this article.
So in the same moment that we condemn personal attacks, I think it’s absolutely vital for us, as a community of feminist philosophers, not to conflate personal attacks with substantive critique, and not to silence black and trans critics of Tuvel’s article by dismissing the critical response as a mob of haters who didn’t even read the article.  Structural inequalities in power and authority compound vulnerability.  White feminists can and have deployed our own vulnerability as a weapon against others whose position is more precarious than our own.  I say “we” here because I want to be clear that this is something I am deeply implicated in, and also because I want to participate in what will no doubt be a long and fraught process of abolishing white feminism and committing to a practice of feminist philosophy that is creative, responsible, and liberatory.

“The Asian was told to leave. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted. So he had to be carried out on a stretcher.”

16 Apr

On Compliance, Complicity, and Beating Up Asian America.

By Eng-Beng Lim

UnitedYikes

For Asian Americans and other professional elites of color who think their class privilege or “whiteness” protects them from the racialized brunt of U.S.-America’s corporate-nationalist wrath, the bloody “re-accommodation” of 69-year-old Vietnamese American doctor, David Dao, on an allegedly overbooked United Airlines (UA) flight might be their “get woke” moment. Just to be clear, it involves police and neoliberal capitalist terror, corporate bullying, and Asian shaming. Dr Dao sustained “a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked out teeth and sinus problems that may require reconstructive surgery.” All for refusing to vacate his seat to accommodate UA’s administrative inefficiency.

But “getting woke” may depend on your level of subscription in the club of denial and complicity. Those with premier benefits might find it hard to relinquish their bad love. For denial has its own rewards, and complicity its wanton rationalization and even perfume.

Membership, afterall, has its privileges. What exactly is the cost of your membership’s privileges? Who is paying the price for your preferred status and clubby jaunt?

“Re-accommodation” is a term used by UA CEO, Oscar Munoz to characterize the forced extraction of seated passengers “randomly” selected by the computer to make space for four crew members. They had to catch a connecting flight that would otherwise be understaffed, delayed or canceled. The flight in question was not overbooked or oversold, as airlines officials originally claimed. That few if anyone is picking on this lie only shows our level of compliance with the fungible language of bureaucratic corporate procedure. We are so inured to gaslighting and alternative truth that a white lie is a just white lie (switch the color and you are most definitely a liar). Let’s give companies and the men who run them the benefit of doubt, and beat the crap out of consumers who do not comply.

Dr Dao was illegally ejected from the plane in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. that prohibits giving preference to airlines employees over paying customers, especially if they have already been seated. Part of the dispute will hang on whether the employees who are considered “must-ride passengers” can unseat paying customers on a full flight. But it does not get to the spectacular violence against the doctor, and the seemingly inexplicable assault on the American consumer and Asian America. To sort out this mess, let’s start with a quick recap of the world we live in, and an earnest question:

Could it be that the corporatization of the Senate and the vindictiveness of male-centered egos exemplified by conservative and rightwing ideologues like Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their cabal of mediocre apparatchiks, naysayers, white supremacists, 1 percenters and security thugs now go hand in hand with the thuggery of state-sanctioned oligopolies like UA that operate as their armed, air travel functionary disguised as service?

A nation’s divisions, arrogance and toxicity do not just spring out of nowhere. Their escalation has been facilitated by ultraconservative white supremacist rancor and gaslighting running the spectrum of racism/xenophobia, anti-gay/misogyny, anti-refugee/Islamaphobia. It’s almost mechanical at this point. But that we should entertain the idea that gaslighters are outraged that their crimes are “leaked” to the press rather than being outraged at their crimes is a real kicker. It is a rich ethical perversion that gives perversion a bad name. The vacuous shorthand, “a nation divided,” only compresses the deniability of those who start wars and fires by demagoguery or political poison. Enter the Bully-in-Chief with explicit instructions for his devotees and initiads, which include white nationalist groups:

“Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously.”

“I’d like to punch them in the face, I tell you, would you?”

“I love the old days. Do you know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

More than just Trump’s expressive nastiness at his rallies, these opportunistic incitements to violence have a long history in U.S-American nationalist bravura, machismo, belligerence, imperialism and gun culture. But as corporate performatives, it is virtually unheard of unless we examine the violent deeds of corporations as the very enactment of these words.

Yes, those are exactly the words that UA is saying to Dr. Dao who is carried out on a stretcher, and by extension to Asian/America. You know, the time when Asian exceptionalism means you can be legally discriminated against because the law does not apply to you – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese incarceration camp, just to name two – or, clobbered to death with impunity (Vincent Chin RIP).

Regarding Trump’s incitement to violence, multiple lawsuits filed against him state how “black residents were brutally attacked by a white mob,” including a plaintiff who was “kicked, choked, shoved, punched, scratched and referred to as nearly every racial slur known.” Though the racial violence is specific and contextual, the abuse is also generalizable of Trump’s treatment of African Americans, especially powerful black women like Susan Rice, Maxine Waters and April Ryan. The intersection of race, violence and corporations that has fueled Trump’s business empire and the rise of his despicable Presidential persona is also at the heart of UA’s treatment of Dr Dao.

To put it plainly, it’s about corporations punching people in their faces, sometimes without them knowing because it’s in the gut so to speak, and sometimes in the flesh, knocking them out senseless. The continuing fetishization of choice in this regard is laughable to say the least. Trump’s response to the incident is for airlines to increase the compensation for bumping passengers off the aircraft as if that would create more access and equality for air travel. And lo and behold, United has quickly announced an upper ceiling of 10k for those bumped out of their seats in the future. That is the solution? Some people are excited about how this is an enticing option to game the system. Who do you think will benefit from? The Dr Daos of the world or those “in the club”?

Let’s put it this way, you may think you are choosing or benefiting freely as a consumer but you have no say about the options from which you choose, and how you are treated in practice. When the options are lousy, they are lousier for those at the bottom whether it is U.S. air travel, healthcare or the school system. They are about creating insufferable conditions for the majority so that the super-privileged who can afford Platinum-level service can take up ever more space and resources just because they can. Because corporate entities love revenues more than anything else. Does this sound like a bloviating cheeto-maniac sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and making everyone parse his gibberish just because he can? That’s the kind of treatment we’re being trained to accept from POTUS Inc. which hails from the neoliberal business world where such disciplinary technique, from Walmart to Wall Street, is justified in the name of financializing everything. Cheap prices and ruthless profits rule the day.

Dr Gao’s plea, “I want to go home, I want to go home” resonates in this echo chamber of hell like a desperate, lonely cry in the woods. Like a bad Hollywood movie where a hero played by Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson/Tom Cruise enters an altered realm of reality where he is met by violence and punishment disguised as law enforcement, Dr. Dao found himself stranded in the limbo of the oversold flight. But while the white Alpha male Hollywood hero is always right and always vindicated, Dr. Dao was knocked unconscious for his efforts on behalf of righteousness and dragged unceremoniously from his seat.

Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson_MAIN

He was told to leave “politely” but he refused as a consumer who paid for his seat. He was given an explanation about how “we [United] have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.” No explanation was given as to why he was not one of the customers that UA wants to get to “their destination on time and safely.”

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Nevertheless, the Asian doctor persisted in defiance of his extraordinary exclusion from the airline’s articulated customer base. So the airlines summoned the full force of airport security, including the Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department whose officer promptly smashed his face, rendered him senseless, and eventually carried him out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth. All the doctor could say in the end was, “Just kill me now.”

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Now imagine Senator Elizabeth Warren being carried out on a stretcher for refusing to abide by Mitch McConnell’s controversial rebuke to silence her during the nomination debate about Jeff Session as U.S Attorney General. Or, for that matter, citizen Warren being dragged out like a rag doll through the aisle, her hair disheveled, and her glasses askew on her face as she is rendered incoherent. All because she refused to shut up or give up her seat. Not so long ago, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”?

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For those who missed this political theater, Warren had sought to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter regarding Sessions’s discrimination against black voters. The meme that went viral encapsulated the public’s response to the blatant sexism of the Senate that voted 49-43 along party lines to shut her up. Degrees of indignity aside, the different scales of violence tell a story of how gender and race are inflected by notions of privilege and proprietary that shape our political and social sympathies. It would be unacceptable for Senator or even Citizen Warren to be taken out the way the body of the limp and anonymous Asian doctor was treated. In fact, the discomfort of witnessing the Asian American doctor’s infantilization and breakdown struck such a raw nerve that reports have eschewed the racial spectacle unfolding before our eyes. He was some Asian man, maybe a doctor, no one was sure, and many commentators cast doubt about him being a doctor at all based, presumably on the way he looks.

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In a sign of the times, a doctor standing his ground on a humanitarian appeal (he had patients to meet the next day) was of no consequence to UA in Trump’s nation where self-serving corporate prerogatives come first. There is a lot more to be said about the terrible entanglements of corporate personhood, profit, policing, and biopolitical regulation. Suffice to say, Dr. Dao’s treatment is not exceptional in the context of ubiquitous bullying and killing across the country. They are only intensifying under the toxic charge of Trump’s administration. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those being bullied or killed are folks with names like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Danny Chen, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Isabella Cornell and David Dao.

We might return to take a closer look at the scene where Dr Dao is carried out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth, and notice this time a different set of actors laughing in the fuzzy background: Team Agent Orange oligarchs, politicos and airlines executives feasting on their bloodied meat. We might add Dr Dao to the names of those who are targeted for harassment and even gunned down because they refuse (or are perceived to be refusing) to comply with bogus rules, corporate prerogatives, heteronormative policing, and white nationalism. The violence produced at the systemic level between colluding regimes and corporations are enduring and far-reaching.

To what extent is complicity – “the state of being an accomplice; partnership or involvement in wrongdoing” – and especially the complicity of cluelessness, detachment or apathy an alibi of colluding forces? Now more than ever, raising questions about complicity’s new faces is also a crucial inquiry about our moral and ethical coordinates as an American, witness, neighbor, ally and friend not only in the U.S. but around the world.

The satirical jokesters at Saturday Night Live suggest that in Trump Nation, complicity is a political pathology for sale in a seductive package. Their metaphor is a bottle of perfume. In an episode that indicts Ivanka Trump for her foxy agendas, Scarlett Johansson’s hyperbolic portrayal of Ivanka vamping it up for a line of perfume makes clear the businesswoman’s product placement comes before the public office she holds (to everyone’s incredulity). One can only wish the public’s wishful projection for Ivanka to be the progressive women’s voice ought to have ended in a recent television interview where she declared, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

Complicity Perfume

Complicity’s feminine two-face (Johansson is herself accused of being complicit in Israeli settler colonialism for defending Sodastream’s factory as legitimate in the illegal settlement on the West Bank) blurs the good and the bad with no commentary on women’s participation in compulsory whiteness, colonial violence and clueless privilege. What looks good and desirable, like Ivanka or the perfume, might help to obfuscate what is making the lives of the disenfranchised even more miserable.

It is nonetheless a club that draws many members, including bourgeois apologists of color, other white liberal allies, and the pinkwashing homo-matrimonial types who want to smell nice. Everyone in this club is trained to love an arsenal of amnesia-inducing denials and blindspots: “I cannot see what you see,” “It doesn’t rise up to that,” “I need more information,” “They did nothing wrong,” “He was belligerent,” “He’s an illegal,” “Who cares?”

To be complicit is to approve the collusion of corrupt power, money, and imperial projects. It is to give your tacit approval of using violence, harassment and assault on people to protect corporate mandates and personhoods, the belligerent police-military state, and colonial whiteness at all cost. The stakes are higher as bombs matching the egos of a bumbling and bloviating team in the White House are being detonated in Syria and Afghanistan to legitimize their violent and morally bankrupt worldview. To speak out as many did on the plane where Dr Dao was assaulted is to reject the normalization of complicity as our moral code.

As we bear witness to the return of an angry U.S. police-military state and the increasingly swampy topography of corporate malfeasance and assault, how many of us will turn a blind eye or do nothing at all?. How many of us will be caught in the victim-blaming, smear campaign against the next “Dr Dao,” or be bought off by the new 10k reward for bumping off passengers?

Do people care? Over 240,000 comments and 550 million views are recorded a day after Dr Dao’s assault on China’s Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter), not counting the millions of views on related YouTube videos. United Airlines’s share price has dropped, and calls to boycott the airline are stronger than ever. So, yes, people do care and they make a difference.

The centrality of the question of complicity tells us we are desperately, urgently needing a salvageable moral and ethical position to live and to flourish in Trump’s America. This is an America where witnessing violence against a neighbor seems to have become a sport, where apathy and cluelessness are quickly becoming the new alibis of complicity. It gives new meaning to sitting tight with privilege in the face of trouble, and sometimes a face says it all:

Calm Guy As Asian Doctor Screams

Screenshot of a widely circulated video of an unidentified man sitting calmly as Dr. Dao screamed in the background.

Exiting the Roach Motel

1 Mar

or What’s the Matter with the Democratic Party? https://ae01.alicdn.com/kf/HTB1XTK5NXXXXXb2XXXXq6xXFXXXP/Reusable-Plastic-Non-Toxic-Eco-Blue-Color-Cockroach-Bug-font-b-Roach-b-font-Motel-Catcher.jpg

By Lisa Duggan

Tags: Dexit, Demexit, Dem-olish, Demogrets

What’s a commie pinko queer feminist to do?

Trump is in the White House, the far right is gaining ground globally, the left is under siege in Latin America, the Arab Spring has been winterized, the police removed the water protectors at Standing Rock, illegal settlements are expanding in Palestine, and the new US administration just sent the gender police back into children’s bathrooms. As everyone knows, this is a long list. It revived my heart arrhythmia.

There is resistance! Lots of things to join and do, and more popping up daily. Here is one thing NOT to do—give one more drop of blood to the undead Democratic Party.

My social media feeds are full of debates between liberals and leftists, especially since Perez beat out Ellison for DNC chair. But these debates are frustratingly framed as comparisons between the two individual candidates, and disputes about the importance of the chair’s job. Wake up, people! It’s not about the candidates or the chair’s position! It’s not about the positions on issues taken by the contending forces. It’s about the money! Follow the money!

The Sanders campaign was a historic event, not primarily because of the stances the candidate took on issues. My own politics are substantially to the left of Sanders. I was never happy with his global vision, nor with his grasp of the dynamics of empire and settler colonialism, nor with his understanding of race, gender and sexuality as just an issue of populations seeking inclusion and representation instead of structurally embedded historical social formations. But I was all in with the Sanders campaign nonetheless for one primary reason: it was a campaign that achieved nationwide, energized mobilization with no corporate or mega rich donors. The Sanders campaign proved the settled wisdom–that there can be no successful national campaign without mega donors–to be wrong. Sanders almost seized the nomination and therefore the party apparatus. He might have won the presidency WITH NO CORPORATE DONORS. This is the crucial fact, not his views on the issues alone. This fact is what made that campaign a historic game changer.

Had Sanders won the nomination the Democratic Party might have become an organization worth fighting with and for. Without corporate donors, the parameters of the possible would be exponentially expandable. Small d democratic debate might have transformed the previous limits of the possible. This fantasy, of a Democratic Party without corporate donors, has only just now been finally, fatally crushed. At least for the forseeable future.

After the defeat of the Sanders campaign, there was still a wee chance to seize the party as a site for more expansive democratic debate. Keith Ellison planned to hew to the small donor funding model, and fire up the grassroots rather than empower the fundraisers. THAT is what made his candidacy important (though it was a nice plus that the party might have had a black Muslim chair). THAT is what made him a threat. THAT is why the Democratic fundraising machine sent in Perez as a spoiler.

Many commenters are busy on social media remarking that Perez and Ellison are similar on many issues. That is true! But it’s also beside the point. Perez supported a return to corporate mega donor funding, and voted accordingly. Ellison represented the alt-political universe of small donors and grassroots activism, vs mega-donor fundraising as the central task of the party apparatus. And this is why it matters: with mega-donor funding, the Democratic Party will never back single payer, never support justice in Palestine, never seriously interfere with business as usual on Wall Street, and on and on. Progressive party activists might get little wins, but as long as corporate funding and paid political consultants constitute the core apparatus of the party, they will NEVER get anywhere on most core issues.

The dead hands of the donor class strangle every living thing in sight. https://i2.wp.com/technuovo.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/zombies1.jpg

The best the corporate Democratic Party had to offer was Barack Obama, and he brought the Citibank boys into his administration the minute he was elected. He brought us drone strikes, kill lists, mass deportation, aggressive prosecution of whistle blowers, and a reformed health care system still in the hands of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Obamacare didn’t even include the popularly supported “public option.” In fact, Hillary Clinton later sent Dem operatives to Colorado to defeat a proposed single payer system there. And this is the best the Dems, as currently constituted, will ever do, because the funders set the limits of the possible. Garbage in (big money), garbage out (bad policy).

Advocates of working with the Dems say that the Trumpocalypse is an emergency—and indeed it is! And they say we must work with the Dems because they have the organization to defeat Trump’s agenda. Here is where things go awry. Let’s face it: the Democratic Party helped create the conditions that produced Trump. Without Democratic Party supported trade and labor policies, deregulation of Wall Street, police and military actions and so on, the wasteland of misery that nurtures the resentments that in turn greased the wheels of the Trump machine would not exist.

Trump is not some singular disaster, and our goal should not be simply to dethrone him. He represents historical conditions that will only keep producing nightmares like him and other slash and burn Republican politicians like the ones empowered by this election. We need to alter the conditions. And the Democratic Party, given the funding structure it has just recommitted itself to, will never do this. If we work with the Dems against Trump, even if he goes down, we will only enable once again the continuation of the neoliberal policies that made his ascent possible. We will be living in the vest pocket of the beast, beating our little fists against its chest forever.

The Democratic Party is a roach motel for leftists. We go in full of vision and energy, like the Sanders kids, like the Ellison supporters, and we get crushed and stuck in the slime. Sanders and Ellison had to play by the rules and call for continuing support for the Dems after their losses. Having played the game, they were stuck with the rules in the roach motel. Once you go in, you may never come out. https://bullybloggers.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/60be1-screenshot2013-05-23at9-44-23am.png?w=255&h=286

But we do not have to keep doing that! It’s not entirely obvious yet what we should be doing instead. There is a lot of vision out there, and a lot of energy. The Movement for Black Lives Vision Statement is one breathtaking effort to bring some of that diffuse, creative political power together into a productive alliance. What an amazing start it is! But it’s still not enough. We need to build on that document, to realize its potential right now. We need the water protectors and indigenous analyses, the insights gained fighting for clean water in Flint, the visionary scope of the prison abolition movement, the innovative energy of queer and trans* organizations, the organizing acumen of the fight for fifteen and the progressive, global labor movement, the global connections of the environmental justice campaigns, the historical insights of anti racist and anti imperial struggles, the deep commitment of the Occupy veterans, the passionate throngs of the Women’s March, and so much more.

Our challenge at this moment is … can we bring these forces together? Not to “unify” them, but to build alliances and share resources? Can we identify some core issues, and support a widely inclusive and flexible interconnected field of radical democratic leadership? It won’t do to default to the anachronistic vision of one big labor union of workers—our situations defy such easy unity. We are debtors and sex workers, prisoners and street kids, artists and tribal elders. Alternatively, if we bring our collective energy into the Democratic Party, then we are doomed. We will die in the roach motel while “responsible” neoliberal elites reestablish control. We need what José Muñoz called, borrowing from Ernst Bloch, “concrete utopian” thinking.

There might be some room at the state and local level for insurgent left candidates to unseat the establishment Dems. But joining the party apparatus will ultimately suck the blood of such insurgencies. Alternative electoral party organizations like the Greens and the Working Families Party in New York also do not have the creative energy and momentum to move us forward right now. Perhaps we might abandon the whole idea of a “party,” and create an alliance project for street action, new thinking, and electoral insurgencies? Perhaps.

In any event, we need to abandon the empty shell of the Democratic party, where https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/c6/7f/5f/c67f5f3059583e06ff3ad99da96536d2.jpgfunctionaries and fundraisers would rather keep control than win elections. Trapped in the roach motel, stuck with Trumpublicans and Donorcrats, what we need to do, metaphorically, is crystal clear: we need to burn that shit down.

 

Aside

Fidel: The Comeback / José Quiroga

14 Dec

 

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I had forgotten about Fidel, other things were on my mind:  a Trump piñata, the Frank Ocean CD, the North Dakota Pipeline. The economic collapse of Puerto Rico and the junta Washington imposed. Turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving. Not falling back onto “business-as-usual” after the election fiasco. Aretha Franklin letting the fur drop like a natural woman facing Carole King and Barack and Michelle Obama.

For three nights before the Event I had been waking up every other hour–those awful nights when I smoke and read and then  go back to bed. What was I reading that week? Cuban poets translated by Kristin Dykstra, an essay by Barbara Johnson that was extremely hard and superbly written, Lina Meruane’s account of temporary blindness titled “Seeing Red,” and every so often anything on “Moonlight,” because for a film conceived and taking place in Miami its refreshing to see that there’s only one self-confessed Cuban there, and a passing mention of black beans. We were not part of the picture, so magical effects of sand and skin and light could once again move to the front.

I heard the news from my lover, when I woke up at six or seven in the morning to read. But I left the book on the desk, took off my glasses and went back to bed. I mumbled to myself that I should turn on CNN, get immediately on the internet, wake up my nephew who was visiting from New York, and consume whatever visuals I could find. But sleep rules with upside-down ethics at moments like this, and I let myself sleep.cortina_roja

The room turned hotter by the minute, with the thick and sticky sort of humid miasma that, once upon a time, made flying insects easy to catch and pierce with a needle dabbed in alcohol for display. All around me the miasma turned into a black and white blob–like silly-putty but translucid–shiny from the inside. And the blob slithered down the stairs. It sucked up the pile of dishes in the sink, the roasted brussels sprouts, the turkey and the turkey sandwiches, the toy soldiers and the board games, the replica of Apollo 13, and the Lunar Module, the cast of Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, the collection of postage stamps in the Citation album, a Davy Crockett hat with a matching vest, a velour sweater, vand a collection of Cuban LPs assembled over the past forty years, albums re-mastered and re-packaged in Mexico so that no revolutionary chants would ever find their way directly to any part of the U.S. mainland or territories.
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I’ve been immersed in that blob for a week, unclear as to what part of me died, what part of me remains. I had a hard time visualizing that body in Havana, just as I had a hard time recognizing my father in that open casket in San Juan: death does a body no good, even the clothes look unreal.   We never got to see the body, but I’m convinced he was cremated in the uniform he used as a  Commander in Chief. After all, there were only three costume changes in the three acts of his life. First, the suit and tie, in two permutations: white suit and black suit.  With that outfit he was a student, a husband, and a lawyer; the father of one child, the man who raised funds in Mexico and in the U.S.A for an invasion aimed to liberate the country from the dictator Batista.  After that, and from 1959 on, he wore an olive green military suit, sometimes shiny for matters of State, at other times not so much a uniform but a radical interpretation of the priesthood–he was a jesuit with a gun and boots. (How many boots did he have?) The black suit and tie made a discrete comeback towards the end–just long enough to leave us with an idea that he could have been, under different circumstances, a “man of State.” But soon enough he settled into the jogging suit and sneakers that he wore the rest of his life.

Was it a stylist who came up with that jogging suit as a deliberate lack of style? It worked as absolute contrast to the heroic black and white and sepia photographs that sealed his place in x. It defined the present as an always a diminished past. It made him approachable, even if it lessened the gravitas.  In his old age, one could imagine him as a man on the move, stubborn in his ways, paying no attention to all those who counseled rest. In the end he was an old man in his comfortable but not luxurious house, with a purple rattan patio set, an easy reclining chair and a tray table to watch the Brazilian soap operas on TV, or write long “reflections” on the present state of the world.

 

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Of course he had to come back, even if only to die. It was at the end of November when the hurricane season is over; when the days are cool and the nights are colder, and there’s only tourists on the beach. Others may question the true existence of that paradox–the Caribbean winter–but for us the magical, muted lights of December, invite us to ponder the future and the past–a past always lived anticipating this moment as the clearest notion of the future, hence, of change. All accounts agree that the mood in Havana was subdued; the few lucky souls that have internet at home posted videos of empty, silent streets–a ghost town in the land of music that has gone silent.

All the protocols had been put in place with military precision a while ago, in Havana and Miami.  “Cubans are volatile by nature,” I can hear this as the lead for an early  briefing at the police headquarters all around Miami-Dade and points beyond

 

tonelThe sum total of fifty-eight years under his rule will take some time to process. Those who visit Havana these days will surely understand one just doesnt leave a city like that without intending to come back, even if you have to fight for every last inch of territory. And yes, they left, they were kicked out, they escaped, they understood they had no other option. They were not all from Havana but most of them were.  In the 1960s they went to Miami, Elizabeth, West New York, or San Juan. In the 1970s some of them tried to turn exile into civil war and lived in a world of secret pacts, bombing raids and training camps in the Everglades.  In the early 1980s they turned up at La Escuelita in Manhattan–fabulous drag queens that couldnt walk straight, couldnt think straight, couldnt march straight, couldnt wear their hair short and part it on the side, or tuck their shirts inside their pants. The fact that in Cuba, of all places, “extravagance” was regulated by the legal code belies a twisted notion of social hygiene predicated on the narrowest and most obtuse delirium or desires of normative masculinity.

And in the end, the colosal failure of his plans and demands allowed Cubans to survive the revolutionary reassignment of the Nineties, as the State shed its old skin and created a “mixed economy” that’s closer to kleptocracy than capitalism. When the state legalized some private commerce it just moved it above ground, and when practicing religion did not count against you, its acts of resistance–it turned out–had been plain enough to see for those who had paid attention all those years. Homosexuals flaunting it and sashaying up and down the Malecón flipped the orthodox “New Man” dreamt by Che Guevara time and time again. In fact, only by defying the law did Cubans survive when the Soviet Union collapsed, and in the process laid to rest the idea that prostitution was solely a by-product of capitalism. When Spanish and Canadian tourists came to see what sort of utopia 40 years of Revolution had conceived, they had to pay a bribe to sneak the women into their hotel room and wait until they wrapped leftover restaurant food in a napkin so the rest of the family could eat. The tourists had front seats to an unravelling they could not quite understand, so they just viewed it according to their own “realistic” understandings, and reminded (more often, lectured) the complaining Cubans on the fate of the poor Haitians, or Bolivians, or even Mexicans.

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But revolutions are not fought and won by populations dulled and overdosed on realism and the first decade of the Cuban Revolution is certainly an example of that.  In the give and take of survival, one side was always fooling the other, and that side in turn pretended to be fooled. Those who think that repression explains the survival of the Cuban state fail to understand that those old Chevys are still running in Havana as a result of an improvised mechanics capable of passing them off as the real thing.  In a similar fashion, by the time his rocking chair was placed on the terrace so that he could enjoy the smell of over-ripe mangoes falling from the tree in the patio, each and every one of his edicts and imperatives and policy decisions was undone, revised, annulled and forgotten.

That hundreds of thousands assembled to pay him their last respects should not surprise the citizens of a country that has now voted Donald Trump into office. Even if both make no secret of their dictatorial streak, it’s clear that to compare one to the other is absurd. Cubans were never suckered into voting or fighting against their own self-interest, by counting the pennies and cents that some “others” receive for social welfare and deciding it’s still too much for the richest country on earth to sustain.  Cubans, on the other hand, were seduced by the prospect of everyone having more, of distributing it fairly, and freely, for the good of all. If it was an ideology that called for sacrifice and frugality, it was built upon a foundation of largesse. Everything was bigger than big, every achievement surpassed previous goals, and every disaster was catastrophic. The particulars of his rule are overshadowed by such collective endeavours; his immortality was gained at the expense of individual lives coming off as accidental, selfish, blinded by petty desires–sore losers, after all, the scum of the earth, the “Cuban Mafia.”

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“Making money was our best revenge,” said the losers, and they point with pride at two of their “rags-to-riches” sons taking center stage in a US presidential campaign heavy on xenophobia and racism. They were expected to celebrate, in order to make that death absolutely real, and celebrate they did– in the gaudy sandwich shop that sits on an otherwise lifeless avenue. Not because there are no suitable places in Miami where you can find collective redemption–the Freedom Tower comes to mind, where at least two generations of Cubans got their refugee checks upon arrival. But Cubans know better than to celebrate a political victory, they know that in spite of being the “model minority,” the “token whites” of the Hispanic world, they have to tread lightly.  Miami-Dade went for Obama and Hillary, and Marco Rubio lost his own state in the primaries. The Cuban Representative for Miami-Dade is the Republican staunch conservative Ileana Ross-Lehtinen who for years kept secret the fact that she had a transgender son until the Miami Herald published the story in 2010. If she had previously voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, she was later the sole Republican who voted to repeal it, and is the only Republican member of the Congressional LGBT Equality caucus. She has always supported her son, just as Gloria Estefan has done the same for her daughter. It’s not clear if the Estefans celebrated Trump’s victory but I would not be surprised if they borrowed an ordinary car to honk their horn around the streets of Little Havana.

In Miami the video of an old Cuban lady went viral: she suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s, was shown his official picture as one of the dead, and she immediately recognized him for what he was But her dancing and her joy are not the most important parts of this story.  as her daughter told her he was dead, She miraculously knew precisely who the Monster was, and jumped and danced and raised her stroller for the cameras. In Paris, in Memphis, Barcelona, Ecuador and Los Angeles, that same day, Cubans individually filmed their thoughts, as scattered as the diaspora of which they form part. A Cuban woman walking home from work in Rome, says she doesnt give a fuck about the corpse, because she has worked very hard to eliminate him from her life. And to all those that want him alive forever, she grabs her tits and slaps her ass and says “you’re never gonna have a piece of this.”

 

 

 

 

Before he died in Miami a couple of years ago, Lorenzo Garcia Vega, one of the greatest Cuban poets, was fond of stating that our Republican period, from 1903 to 1959, had been neither a drama or a tragedy nor a farse, but actually a light opera, a musical comedy, a cartoon strip on the Sunday paper. After the Republic collapsed like a soufflé,  Lorenzo left Cuba, found himself in New York, spent a brief period in Caracas and then moved to Miami where there have always been old Cubans and few poets. He worked as a bag boy in Publix and spoke about his job in many of his poems and books. He called himself “the great loser,” not with the sense of classical beauty that Elizabeth Bishop moulded into a perfect line (“the art of losing is hard to master”), but as the starting point for a slipshod, messy, dirty aesthetics of repetition and reiteration.

That was Cuba to Lorenzo–the trains never ran on time, cars kept breaking down and the traffic lights were out of sync. It was a complicated musical comedy with so many implausible twists and turns and plot devices that at certain points surely everyone becomes a martyr only to end up acting like a thief. And what about sacrifice, fatherland or death? It could be even funnier if it weren’t so tragic, if it didnt have such complicated grammar, if it weren’t aiming for nothing short of utopia. Lest we confuse Lorenzo with a cynic, let us underscore his time in Purgatory at Albino Beach (his name for Miami) where you may find a way out of poverty and lack of means because from poverty of spirit there are no survivors.

In the end, the world more or less survived his foolish play with the nuclear arsenal. And if the past sixty years have rendered Cubans into beings Cubans themselves fail to understand, by turning families against each other, and demanding that friends betray their closest friends and attack them for attempting to leave the country. In the midst of all this, it bears repeating one simple fact learned from these past five decades:  it is no small consolation that one can come out of material poverty and need,  while not even the Chinese doctor can cure you of poverty of spirit.

A nation overdosed on history can respond to solemnity with a pork croquette.After retracing the route of his triumphant march to Havana in 1959, his ashes were placed inside a brown granite rock that, they say, was not painted olive green lest it look like a turd.  And that’s the end of it all.  Like the great Maria Teresa  Vera said, “Play a rumba on top of that tomb”

for José M.

December 4, 2016

Moonlight, the Sea Body, and the Color Blue by Macarena Gómez-Barris

3 Nov

moonlightIn director Berry Jenkin’s new film Moonlight (2016), the intimate view on Black queerness astonishes. While the film is a painful coming of age story, it is also a lively rendition of alternative frameworks of embodiment where the powerful ocean, or sea body, is omnipresent and rendered as a space of longing, transgenerational memory, migration, and witness represented by water and light. During a recent viewing of Moonlight with a group of friends at Lincoln Center, I was surprised to find myself so completely absorbed in the filmic experience as to feel saturated by the film’s sensuality, or what Laura Marks’ might call its haptic sensuality “where even small events are arenas for a universe of feeling” (2002: p.1).

Moonlight is not an easy viewing experience, not only because of the homophobia that is directed against Chiron (Alex Hibbart). It is also because the shy nine-year old rarely experiences relief from multiple forms of violence and subjectification that brutalize his psychic and physical form. The film is indeed organized around how Chiron’s Black queer personhood is conditioned by the drugs and violence of Reagan-era Miami and by the taunting racialized violence of adolescent masculine becoming. In a moment of janelle-monae-moonlight-compressedexteriorizing others prejudices, Chiron thoughtfully turns his head and asks his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali) “What’s a faggot”? Even though he is the local drug dealer, and regularly supplies to Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris), Juan is also a gentle protector and ally. After exchanging glances with his girlfriend Teresa, exquisitely played by Janelle Monáe, Juan responds to Chiron’s startling, yet knowing question with a simple and profound statement, “It’s something people say to make gay people feel bad.” Teresa becomes a resonant presence in the film. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Chiron, aka “Little,” returns to Teresa’s house to eat, sleep, and to generally find a cocoon within an environment that otherwise offers little respite. With an ethics of care that is carried out with a playful tinge of an island accent, Teresa figures as the source of acceptance, hope, and loving support, especially within a US landscape where “being oneself” is anathema to a culture that devours and disposes of its Black queers.

If Teresa’s care for Chiron represents a rich portrait of island relationality and the ability to address differential power and political economies of difference through non-reproductive intimacy, there are several other moments in the film where Miami is thoroughly infused by what Jacqui Alexander refers to as diasporic crossings (2006). For Alexander, feminist and queer crossings are a site for trans-generational memory, where historical and layered crossings force open a reckoning with the embodied meaning of the sacred, and, the spiritual dimensions of experience. Amidst a hardened world where the worst forms of structural violence impose themselves upon Black queer bodies, there is an excess that looms large in the film, one that cannot be absorbed simply by naming Moonlight a coming of age story. Alongside and as a direct witness to Chiron’s story is the aliveness of the sea, the body of water that stretches between the Caribbean Islands to the Biscayne Bay, and it too becomes a protagonist in the film.

 

Whether as a view from the window, or lapping alongside Little and Kevin’s sexual encounter, or as an enveloping presence as Chiron first learns to swim, in a palette that moves between midnight black to light turquoise green the oceanic touch and feeling is never far. Describing the “newness” of Moonlight in a review for the NY Post, David Kaufman recently said, “There has literally never been a film like it.” US cultural criticism often contains this kind of hyperbole and ethnocentric management of racialized and gendered representations.342734c3-f1dd-4f41-b25b-a4fd6c07d71a We might counter such exaggerated declarations by noting Karim Aïnouz’s extraordinary Madame Satá (2002), a film that chronicles the life of legendary Queen and performance artist Joao Francisco, or point to the Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (1993), directed by Tomás Guitierrez Alea and that complexly considers queer nightmares, although admittedly race is scantly addressed in the film. It may be true that Moonlight is different from many of the recent Hollywood films that feature Black masculine subjects, such as Nate Parker’s The Birth of the Nation and 12 Years a Slave, as The NY Post compares. And, it’s true that Moonlight clearly shares important resonances with Pariah (2011), whose cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed uses blue and pink hues in novel ways. However, if we considered a broader world of filmmaking and influences, a more apt comparison might include f5ff4fb3-49bd-4f13-8bdb-f2692e1fd77fGirlhood (2014), director Céline Sciamma’s coming of age film about a French immigrant young woman growing up in public housing in suburban Paris. Both Moonlight and Girlhood share how race, sexuality, desire, and vulnerability are central to the experience of living on the margins, and how every day violence in the lives of Black youth compounds the need for embodied modes of escape. Similar to Moonlight, where the color blue is a filter, a costume, a painted wall, in Girlhood blue functions as a contrast to the overseen use of murky palettes. In dominant representations, dull and mutated tones visualize “the margins,” “the inner city” and “the outskirts” as spaces of lifeless blight. To counter such conventions in both films the color blue, in all its shaded richness, becomes the medium for a parallel narrative of an outside to extreme pressure. In short, the color blue offers the potential space of freedom as the imaginative and the intuitive. In the case of Girlhood, a vibrant and pulsating blue infuses the most important scene in the film, a scene that is organized around a beautiful and exuberant dance amongst friends to Rhianna’s song “Diamond.”

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In one of the most moving and much discussed scenes in Moonlight, including in Tavia Nyong’o’s piece posted on this blog, the camera lingers on undulating waves and Chiron’s black body as his head is gently cradled by Juan. Teaching Chiron how to swim, the two Black bodies float alongside and entangled with each other in a lingering choreography of embodied sensation, floating between jade and shimmering waves. At various points during the scene, the camera half submerges underwater, capturing limbs and embodiment both above and below the water’s changing surface. This submerged visuality is not only about the camera’s dipping below the overlay of human relations, or about forgetting the conditions of violence that surround Chiron. Instead, the scene of non-scripted intimacy offers another way to see Chiron’s supposed submission to the world of hetero-masculine tauntings. Juan teaches Chiron how to swim for himself in the sea, as the camera lingers over the touch of Black skin and the mesmerizing mutation of turquoise green waves. Indeed, the pastel tones and lush colors reflect the light of Miami, but also the dreamlike quality of what Jenkins has referred to as the “beautiful nightmare” that is this city. Drying off at the end of the scene, Juan reveals to Chiron that he is from Cuba, where there are a lot of Black people, despite the fact that you don’t see them here, an allusion to the visibility of white Cubans in Miami’s elite political and economic machinery. Through the blue-green glistening sea, we are reminded of the Middle Passage, its histories of collective death and commodification, but also the sea as a quintessential site of freedom.

The sea is visualized a dozen or more times in the film, as a lingering presence, a witness of adolescent sexual exploration, and as Little’s return home. Coming back for a visit to Miami in adulthood, Chiron meets up with Kevin, his adolescent friend and with whom he shares the powerful memory of teenage desire and touch. At a restaurant by the sea where he works, Kevin prepares Chiron a special dinner. Chiron asks, “Oh, you Cuban now?” “Only in the kitchen, papi,” Kevin responds. Given the ever present ebb and flow of the sea and the hovering moonlight, Kevin might have added “also by the ocean.” Within the arc of small exchanges and moments that are filled with dreamlike potential, the Caribbean is threaded through the main narratives of Moonlight. a589d215-eee2-4d80-ac7c-5249ada39747

In this sense, ocean water might be read as a powerful symbol of the Orisha and goddess Yemaya. In Santeria, Yemaya is the source of all, the constantly mutating and transforming force that is both protector and the mother of all life that rules over the seven human figures of the pantheon. Given the Yoruba-based worship that traverses Caribbean and Brazilian Afro-diasporic memory (Yemanjá in Brazilian Portuguese), Yemaya represents a powerful and even queer force of the natural world, untamable and in constant mutation and represented by the sea. In an early scene that takes place within Juan’s mother’s apartment, the ceramic and humanized figure of Yemaya is dressed in a blue and white robe and sits upon a simple shelf in the backdrop, a symbol of Paula’s possible immigrant and diasporic roots. In fact, the color blue as sea, in the openings towards the sky, and as painted walls within domestic spaces, as well as at Chiron’s high school, is so prominent as to become the powerful symbolic language of what might be called a “blue cinema” that color adjusts, to invoke Marlon Briggs brilliant documentary, for Black diasporic visuality and memory. Even amidst the alienating and violent environments that Chiron is exposed to and must survive within, the spiritual symbolic of the African diaspora explodes in the most of the scenic backdrops. Thus, while Moonlight inhabits the conditions of structural violence, it also invokes its spatialized transits — between the Caribbean islands, the economies of empire and sexual tourism, the non-spaces of historical memory. Meanwhile, the color blue, the sky, the ocean become the means of metaphorical escape. This secondary symbolic level, is where the director touches other dimensions of experience that pass through Black diasporic cultural memory and embodiment, reaching into the shadowy and liquid transits of the Caribbean basin and the trans-Atlantic. With the title “Moonlight,” other cosmologies are subtly made apparent, the reflection of the sea tides, the references to other ways of knowing, being, seeing and thinking that find routes out of hyper-visible political and material operations.

Moonlight exceeds the frameworks that criminalize queers, diminish Black life, and individualize the logics of racialized gender as determining of particular outcomes. Moonlight is the other space, the parallel world of ancestors, the shadow world, the porous line between living and dead, the drowned and floating worlds as histories of crossing and being otherwise. And, it is also the Orisha world where all is not ruled by the human condition, all is not tamed by capitalist materialism, and all is not predetermined by the structure of violence that forces Chiron to become a muscular man who dare not touch another man, even well into adulthood. The moonlight of the film is cast on Black male bodies, that during adolescence find their intimacy with each other. And in the last scene of the film, holding each other by the light of the moon is the moment of release and of finding one’s own and another’s sense of belonging.

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