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Suffering Sappho! Wonder Woman and Feminism By Jack Halberstam

5 Jul
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Suffering Sappho!!

For those of you young enough to associate the term Amazon only with the corporate giant that slew the bookstores and sold the world, the new Wonder Woman movie may not evoke any earlier lesbian or feminist associations. But for people who still remember certain strands of lesbian feminism from the 1970’s, the term Amazon conjures fierce, one-breasted women who lived without men and who fought, hunted, made war and love and generally embodied a utopian feminist past. And while the Amazons so beloved of lesbian feminists tended to be figured as white, others may make connections to the Dahomey Amazons – not mythological figures at all but an all female military regiment started by the third King of Dahomey in the 17th century. These Black Amazons held political power and trained for war and were only disbanded when Dahomey became a French protectorate.

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Seh-Dong-Hong Beh, a leader of the Amazons of Dahomey

The now much maligned Michigan Women’s Music Festival used to open and close every year with a group rendition of Maxine Feldman’s  “Amazon” (“Amazon women rise, Amazon women weaving rainbows in the skies. Amazon women fly, Amazon women fly!”) And Feldman left no doubt as to what she meant by Amazon: “I am and once was called Amazon, now I am called lesbian!” That is clearly not the meaning of Amazon in the new Wonder Woman movie and indeed the Diana Prince who leaves Themyscira for London is no Dahomey style man-killer. She does not come to bury patriarchy, she just wants her place at the table. Indeed, our era’s Wonder Woman spends more time ‘leaning in’ than leaning on the bad guys.

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Leaning in?

Too bad, because I had very high hopes for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Jenkins, after all, made the fantastic Monster in 2003 starring Charlize Theron as famed rape revenge serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. And Wonder Woman as a character and a comic book hero has a long and colorful origin story that stretches back through early suffragettes, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and a domestic triangle involving psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway and his student/lover Olive Byrne (also Sanger’s niece). None of these details make their way into Jenkins’ superhero movie, alas, and instead we get a competent, conventional blockbuster with an alluring lead actress and long drawn out action sequences punctuated by a few moments of humor, a few leaden speeches and a rewritten version of World War One!

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William Marston with both of his female partners (Olive Byrne in white and Elizabeth Holloway in the right hand corner) and their four children.

 

wonder-2The Wonder Woman of the comic books from the 1940’s was a social justice figure – she opposed male dominance; she defeated the Nazis; she rescued people; and in one issue, she ran for president. In Patty Jenkins’ film, a blockbuster angling for franchise status and no doubt timed to coincide with what most people thought would be the first female presidency in the US, Wonder Woman is a romantic heroine, looking for a mate and fighting baddies along the way. For those who are so inclined, one could even read a Zionist narrative into Jenkins’ film given that Diana Prince is played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress, and former Miss Israel, who credits her time spent in the Israeli Defense Forces for her winning the part of Gisele in the Fast and Furious franchise. Her military expertise is fully on show in Wonder Woman. Also, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman moves the comic book narrative setting of World War 2 to World War 1, probably because an Israeli actress fighting Nazi’s in World War 2 would require some kind of discourse on the Holocaust!

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The Germans are still the bad guys in this version and actually the first time Diana meets Steve Trevor he is wearing a German uniform for disguise and the Amazons ask him how they are supposed to tell the difference between him and the enemy. Good question! And would that the film had followed up on this Amazonian instinct that wars pit one form of violent and racist nationalism against another…but we lose sight of any kind of critique quickly as a heteropornographic conceit takes over in which a lovely woman has been stranded in an asexual community of women and then spies a naked man for the first time. After some banter about whether the naked Steve is a worthy representative of the male species, Diana Prince begins the inevitable fall into the sloppy clichés of hetero romance accompanied by bottom-feeding lines like: “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

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“Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.”

This is all very disappointing, if only because Wonder Woman began promisingly enough with scenes of Diana’s childhood in Themyscira: this was women-only territory and the women were training for war. In Amazon territory, viewers are treated to some bona-fide female muscularity in the form of Robin Wright, who plays Diana’s aunt, Antiope, and there are even quick explanations for the absence of men – “men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.” Once she leaves her Amazonian isle, Diana is plucky and feisty enough and she quickly lets Steve Trevor know “what I do is not up to you.” She consistently out thinks, out fights and out runs him and he underestimates her at his peril. But his presence is intended to snuff out any fantasies of Amazonian love between women.

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Perhaps Patty Jenkins should have made the Wonder Woman film a narrative nested in the far more interesting story about the polyamorous threesome of Marston, Holloway and Byrne who, together, coproduced the fantasy that finally made it to the pages of DC comics. Jill Lepore, in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, tells this story  with verve and skill and she untangles this history from a straightforward account of comics and locates the emergence of Wonder Woman firmly within a scene of sexual experimentation, security porn and suffragette feminism! According to Lepore, Marston, who is also credited with the invention of the lie detector, first married a lawyer, Elizabeth Holloway, and then fell in love with his student, the boyish Olive Byrne. The three lived together and shared household intimacies, chores and inspiration and they had four children together. After Marston’s death, the two women continued to live together, suggesting that the intimacy was not simply an extended three way in which the women shared the man. Olive was the niece of the great suffragist and early feminist Margaret Sanger and it was she who brought Sanger’s activism and writings to Marston’s attention. Much of Sanger’s work fueled Marston’s imagination when, later in life, he was hired to create a female superhero for DC comics. According to Lepore: Marston’s comic, was meant to chronicle what he called “a great movement now under way—the growth in the power of women.”

imagesMarston’s Wonder Woman was fiercely feminist. She was bold and strong if also limited and liberal (she believes in “truth” after all!). But the Wonder Woman that he and Byrne and Holloway birthed was sexually inventive and gave voice to a kind of lusty relation to life, love and romance – romance for her often involved inverted gender roles, light bondage and a casual relation to violence. Many of the Wonder Woman stories played out Marston’s ideas about the power of men submitting to women and there was a non-exclusive representation of heterosexuality capacious enough to allow for a frisson between Diana Prince and her Amazonian sisterhood. Power dynamics, in the Wonder Woman comics, were full of eros and like Marston and Byrne, student-teacher dynamics were avowedly erotic rather than sources of anxiety and concern. Wonder Woman was a utopian who believed in a world made lousy by men and a potential world in which women kept everything in check.

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That the power of women might be linked to lesbianism is not a hidden theme in Wonder Woman. According to Jill Lepore and others, lesbianism was always a clear part of the narrative. Indeed, conservatives railed against both Batman and Wonder Women in the 1950’s on account of the clear implications of a gay relationship between Batman and Robin and the obvious association between Diana Prince and lesbianism. Most accounts of the comic book character refer to her as bisexual. And yet, in the 2017 movie, in an era of gay marriage and public recognition of LGT families, the plot makes no nod to Sapphic love at all! Indeed, Diana Prince only comes to life when she meets Steve Trevor, leaves the island and begins a romantic flirtation with him. He even names her, for god’s sake, when he cuts her off as she is explaining to a military man in London that she is Princess of Themyscira. She gets only as far as “Prince…” when Steve interrupts and says “Prince, Diana Prince…” She also gets her “love conquers all” and “only believe” lines from Steve and the film suggests that after Steve is gone, she still believes he will return to her. Diana’s relations to women are firmly situated in a mythic past and they are all firmly situated as kin rather than love interests.

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While the Wonder Woman of the early years of comics regularly rescued her mates, now she relies upon them to do the heavy lifting. The female super hero who carried men to safety and punctuated many a particularly gnarly situation with pithy catch phrases – “suffering Sappho” but also “great Hera!” and “Athena’s shield! – is nowhere to be found in 2017, in a future world that early Wonder Woman could never have been pessimistic enough to predict. So, what is a contemporary Wonder Woman to do? Too queer for Hollywood, too powerful for male pornographic gazes, too militaristic for feminists, too feminist for Christians (probably too Jewish for Christians in the latest incarnation), too dangerous and castrating to be victim to Trump-like pussy grabbing activity, but too liberal to lead a freedom fight. While Wonder Woman in the past, and definitely in Marston’s version, strongly embodied the feminist aspirations and struggles of the day, does she represent any kind of feminism now?

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Marston’s Wonder Woman might be bewildered by the marketplace of ideas about feminism now and might not be sure whether she is a feminist or not, or what feminism even means in an era when Ivanka Trump, Angela Merkel and Cheryl Sandberg represent female accomplishment! Diana Prince is certainly no corporate feminist asking for a seat at the table; but nor is she simply Roxanne Gay’s “bad feminist” in the sense of finding herself outside its logic. Is she the womanist feminist of 1970’s radical feminism? A lesbian separatist stranded outside the Michigan Women’s Music Festival? Or is she the anarcho-feminist from my Gaga Feminism? Could she be the central character, with her raised fist and willful arm, of Sara Ahmed’s powerful polemic: Living a Feminist Life (Duke UP, 2017)? And will contemporary young feminists embrace the 1940’s Wonder Woman or ask for a trigger warning in relation to her preference for militaristic solutions to political problems?

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To take just one of these options, Sara Ahmed’s sense of a “feminist life,” we might find only a very rough fit between Ahmed’s principles and Wonder Woman’s proto-feminism. And at certain points, they would have to part ways. Sara Ahmed’s book was written in the wake of her decision to leave Goldsmith, a hard decision that she made, as she puts it, “after three years of working with others to challenge how sexual harassment has become normalized in academic culture.” Deciding to give up the institutional life with its tendency to provide brick walls for us to knock our heads against in favor of a feminist life, Ahmed returns to the work of philosopher Marilyn Fry, Black feminists bell hooks and Audre Lorde and other thinkers often associated with 1970’s and 1980’s radical feminism and even argues that “we need a revival of lesbian feminism.” This return has Amazonian potential as does the book’s embrace of willfulness and killjoy tendencies. Reviving the call to see the personal as political, Ahmed quotes Fry’s notion of “lived theory” and even flirts with her separatist orientations (Ahmed declines to quote white men in this book).

But, Ahmed also positions feminism as an “archive of fragility” – she defines fragility as “the quality of being easily breakable” and feminism as “self-breakage” and a feminist politics of fragility as a model of “not only how to survive what we come up against but how to enable relationships to endure that can be easily threatened by what we come up against.” This fragile feminism has little room for a bondage-oriented super hero committed to fighting evil men in hand to hand combat (although Ahmed does conjure the image of a feminist army!). Ahmed’s book is beautiful in places, profound in others and it ricochets between pure anger, despair and a poetic conjuring of the inevitability of miscommunication, and the futility of institutional routes to multiracial and non-sexist education.

But ultimately Ahmed’s return to lesbian feminism, the reclaiming of the kill joy is not as inclusive as Ahmed makes it sound and despite reaching out to trans women with the definition of womanhood as “all who travel under the sign women,” the history of lesbian feminism that she draws upon is the exact history of feminism that made transwomen unwelcome in the first place! And the connection between feminism and fragility, along with Ahmed’s sympathy for trigger warnings and calls for safe space, and never mind her warning that humor “is a crucial technique for reproducing inequality and injustice” might ultimately leave readers with a depressive version of feminism – one that precisely lacks joy, pleasure and sex.

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Wonder Woman, might balk at having to understand herself a part of what Ahmed calls a “fragile archive,” a record of the many slights and wounds that female-bodied people are dealt in a male-centric world. In Ahmed’s world, Diana Prince would not have much recourse to humor and she might have to issue a few trigger warnings before seriously kicking some patriarchal ass. Wonder Woman would be inclusive of trans women but she would ultimately have her fist in the air for safe spaces, sensitive students who are used and abused and a kind of femininity that does not want to hear about the erotics of bondage.

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Likely Ahmed would not accept Wonder Woman as a symbol of the “feminist life.” But if we return to the Black Amazons of Dahomey, we can find a better image for her book and for some compromise between the tough, gnarly, intersectional feminism that she offers us and the anarchic power of the super hero. Fortunately, Wonder Woman had a much more interesting twin sister – Nubia – a Black super hero sculpted from dark clay while Wonder Woman was sculpted from light clay by their mother! When the two meet, in a volume of Wonder Woman comics from January 1973, they engage in woman to woman combat – Nubia wins but does not kill Diana, instead she claims the title of the Real Wonder Woman and the two unite to defeat Mars. In another issue, Diana is battling to “free the women of Africa.” This is laughable when we remember the Dahomey militias, and luckily Nubia steps in to save “the women of Africa” from the promised emancipation at the hands of a white hero, and she gives Diana a lesson in anti-colonial struggle.

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We might hope for some future Wonder Woman movies that hew more closely to the spirit of the original Wonder Woman than Pattie Jenkins’ safe and genre conforming film. Supposedly something is in the works about Marston, Holloway and Byrne and there are also rumors of a Nubia film with squabbles online about whether Nubia should be played by Serena Williams! Either of these has more potential to tap into super-heroic feminist powers than the film we have been given in 2017, a time when a few violent women willing to put male “heroes” in their place while fighting for justice could go a long way. If someone is sharpening her pencil and readying to write/draw an episode of Wonder Woman in which both Wonder Women – Diana Prince and Nubia – or even a multi-racial coalition of trans* Wonder Women are gearing up to fight an evil Overlord with yellow hair, tiny hands and an even tinier vocabulary, let me know. And when they are finished with him, how about fighting a host of Overlords like Google, Uber, Whole Foods and others and taking back the term Amazon for more righteous and queer utopian freedom dreams?

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“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

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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.

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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.”

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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:

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

WHITE MEN BEHAVING SADLY by Jack Halberstam

22 Feb

White Men Behaving Sadly

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At the end of a year in which men behaved badly, madly, and even gladly, how appropriate that an Oscar contending film appears in which men behave, yup, sadly. Indeed all the ladly behaviors that make up the repertoire of white masculinity have culminated in this – a film where we finally understand why the white man is sad, why everyone else is bad and why despite being sad because everyone else is bad, he learns to be a dad.

Manchester by The Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan) is a self-indulgent but pretty picture in which Affleck the Younger, Casey that is, mopes around for a full hour onscreen before we understand that something terrible has happened to him. His brother dies but that barely merits a tear from our sad sack chap. So could it be that he has a really bad job as a handy man that puts him in the way of verbal abuse from women and people or color and even an episode that comes close to sexual harassment from a woman of color? No, the sad white man mostly just takes the abuse and keeps on keeping on. He soldiers on because he is a white man behaving sadly and that is what white men do. So what is the terrible thing that has happened to Casey Affleck to make him move around in the world like a zombie, silent and brooding, angry and resentful. Well, spoiler alert, let me explain. Lee Chandler (played by Affleck the Younger), we find out in flashbacks, once had a wife and some kids. And he was a good man. And he behaved gladly and sometimes even a little badly. Like, one night he had his buddies over and they made too much noise. So his wife broke up the party and made them go home. Sulking, Lee makes a fire in the living room and then steps out into the night to get some more beer. By the time he gets home, his house has burned down with his children in it and only his wife escapes.

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After an episode in the police station where you think that maybe he might be charged with something, manslaughter perhaps, he finally wigs out about what has happened and tries to grab a police officer’s gun, presumably to kill himself. The police politely restrain him and he is released to his brother’s care. Well, wow. So he burned his own house down and waved a gun around in a police station and lived to tell the tale because…sad white men’s lives matter and so accidently burning your kids and waving a gun at cops is not a big deal and just requires a little TLC! Don’t you get it? He is hurting and we are expected to cry for him because it is all so sad…for him! Not for his wife, not for those kids, not for his brother, but for him. All the bad things that happen around him, are his bad things.

Why are white men so sad? Well, in this film, they are sad because women are fucked up shrews and alcoholics who drag them down, give them heart attacks and, for god’s sake, try to talk to them and offer them food. They are also sad because they work for very little money and do the worst jobs in the world. They clean other peoples’ toilets, fix their showers and live in small garrets alone and with very bad furniture. Poor sad white men. This sad white man also has to take on the burden of parenthood after his brother’s death. His brother left his only son in Lee’s care and Lee and the boy tussle about girls, sex and authority until Lee learns to see the boy as his heir, as another white man who should enjoy his adolescence because soon everything will be taken from him too.

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Yes, reader, this is a film made to measure for the coming Trump era, a time when white men can stop being sad, feel very glad and grab lots of pussy with impunity. Like Trump’s entire campaign, this film does not need to trumpet its white supremacy because this doctrine is embedded in every scene, it saturates every shot, it controls the camera and it lives in every hangdog moment that Lee Chandler spends staring silently off into space. Whiteness, the film tells us, is part of the frayed beauty of America and its power hangs in the balance in a world where bad things can and do happen to white men…even when they themselves cause those bad things to happen! Indeed, off screen Casey Affleck has been cast as a serial sexual abuser and while accusations of sexual harassment brought Black director Nate Parker’s Oscar hopes to a sordid conclusion, Affleck’s history with sexual harassment suits barely merits a mention. This film gives us a clue as to how powerful white men see the world, women, love, loss and violence – it is all one tragic narrative about how hurt and misunderstood they really are.

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The world of “Manchester by the Sea” is the world imagined by white men in an era when a Black man was in the white house and women held public offices at many levels. It is a world where the white working class man has no power – he dies young (Lee’s brother), he lives alone (Lee), he cannot even enjoy spending time in his basement with other white men. His wife treats him badly and then later, after the tragic event (that he himself caused) his Black boss and his female customers abuse him. The white world of Manchester by the Sea is elegiac, brimming with a sense of tragedy that exceeds the events on the screen and asks us, begs us even to find a reason for why things should be this way.

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There are great tragedies written about women who have killed or been forced to kill their children – think of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who takes a hatchet to her baby rather than relinquish her back to slavery. Think of Medea who kills her children to take revenge on her husband and their father, Jason, for leaving them. Think of Sophie in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice who must choose to let one child live and the other die upon entering Auschwitz. These stories show infanticide as a deliberate action taken as part of a sacrifice or to prevent something worse than death from happening. No such logic underwrites Manchester by the Sea – the death of the children is almost gratuitous, it means nothing in the film except as its function as the source of irreducible melancholia for the white man. This same melancholia does not affect his wife (played by Michelle Williams) who quickly marries and has another child. There is no set up in the film to show us the bond between Lee and his children; there is little that explains the melancholia – is it guilt? Anger?

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While critics fall over themselves to give this film an Oscar, we should ask what the film is really about. If this film is an allegory then it is a perfect symbolic landscape of the territory that ushered Trump into office – the film sees the world only through the eyes of working class white men. It sees such men as tragic and heroic, as stoic and moral, as stern but good. The film knows that the tragedy from which the white man suffers is of his own making but nonetheless the film believes that the tragedies that they have created happen to them and not to other people. This is the same logic by which Dylan Roof took the lives of nine African American church-goers in South Carolina while claiming to be defending white people from Black criminality and it is the logic by which Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded fourteen others in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara in 2014. Rodger left a manifesto behind that represented him as a victim of women who had sexually rejected him. It is the logic of every lone white gunman in America and while the media depicts these killers as mad and marginal, American cinema romanticizes them as sad and solitary. Obviously, Manchester by the Sea is not about a serial killer who turns a gun on innocents and yet innocents do die by his hand and rather than seeing this as a tragic narrative about white male narcissism or about the dangers of centering one group in a complex society, we are asked to read the film as just another story about white men behaving sadly.

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And now, in Oscar season, we prepare to watch the films that celebrate white families, white song and dance, white grief, white music go up against films about Black families (Fences), Black grief (Moonlight), disaporic displacement (Lion), and win or lose, we can hear the storm troopers outside on the streets. Films that a few months ago just seemed to be about sad things or happy things, now appear in a new light and become part of our national tragedy in which all attempts to make diversity mean something, to resist systems that criminalize communities of color while representing white crime as law and order, to rethink sex, are quickly dismissed as identity politics, political correctness or authoritarian feminism. It is time, apparently to make America great again, to cater to the sad white man, to feel his pain, to lift him up and dry his tears. White men have been sad for too long apparently, now it is our turn.

Papa Doesn’t Smell The Heat

10 Oct

Mykki Blanco – High School Never Ends (ft. Woodkid) (Official Music Video) from The FADER on Vimeo.

By Tav Nyong’o

My constant teaching has been this: live for the drama, but don’t let the drama live you.

You are not your gadget, you are not the face at the end of your selfie stick, or the Emoji, Bitmoji, Ebroji. You are not the little techAsian monster avatar that the sea of oblivious and negligent faces see you as. Put your phone away and talk to me. You are not the tone that is being policed, or the body that just got housed. Some of us go to protest wearing our graveyard suits, as Brother Corn likes to say. And some of want to be downlow hanging in them baggy jeans that give you nice dreams.

I can learn from you even if I can’t trust you: you just might get my stone face. But still, my teaching has been this: you are not your stoneface, your nervous giggle, your catalogue of embarrassments, or your family basket of deplorables. Get serious for a second, but not too deadly serious. Remember to breathe when you can. There is peace beyond passion, but that great gettin’ up morning already happened, and those who need to know it already do. I need the right to sing those blues.

Mykki Blanco knows it. Mykki has the right to sing those blues and swing them. I spent Sunday evening being happily triggered by his latest video, “High School Never Ends.” It’s off his excellent debut album. Debut album? I feel like I’ve known Mykki forever but we’ve only met once in an elevator. I saw him play out one night in Berlin this summer, while I was still in a cosmopolitan funk about lost dreams, the funeral circuit, fleeting youth, and black bodies getting shot down in the streets of America, hustled out of cabs for a beat down in Germany, or drowned unheralded off Lampedusa. And yeah, I kinda know how that all sounds.

High School Never Ends is “black queer studies,” as the academy wants to call it, no tea, no shade. But those theory drugs may not love you the way they love me, and that’s okay too. It is a raw video, in painful focus, and watching it on my big screen (trigger warning for class privilege?) was its own small drama in my living room. I had to turn it off before the end to spare my friends and my beloved, giving new meaning to the guest croon of French singer Woodkid: “Why don’t you just delete me?”

Why don’t you just delete me … talk about… a great pick up line! Ha! (I hope you laughed) If only, if only our lives could be blanked out like that, if only we could delete ourselves and get contorted and connected somewhere under cover of dark.

If only we could peace out just like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet did.

Loosely based on Romeo + Juliet (Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t the only one who has figured out how to get the mainstream to pay attention to black or brown lives by encapsulating them in white roles), High School Never Ends is really a love letter to the black bwoi or gal who may be planning his next ticket to Berlin after the “Get behind me Satan” moment last night during the debates.

I was that boy once. And, like James Baldwin  before me, I hoped that Europe would be a place where I could breathe. I didn’t want to assimilate, although ich spreche ein bisschen mehr Deutsche jetzt, so there. (Shout out to LaTasha Nevada Diggs for that courage to twerk the English tongue as she is spoke!) I wanted to interinimate, a word I learned from Fred Moten that comes from metaphysical poetry but could also apply to how we move through the world. Tickets, money, passport is the drill: get your life in the dank basement of a Neukölln bar, get bounced by the style fascists at the door to Berghain, do some “research,” and sun your nude ass by one of those lakes or canals that, quiet as it’s kept, the city is really known for. Stay woke, stay hidden, stay sleep.

Wear protective coloration, develop a tolerance for second hand smoke, explore polyamory, private FaceBook group sexscapades, and collective feminist accountability. Eat, pray, love or drink, grieve, fuck, and fuck up badly, as the case may be. Get your life and try not to notice how often protective coloration doesn’t really protect you, but is a ruse of your own making, a trip you may be on solo, an emotional aphasia in which you remain stone face everywhere outside the uchromatic dark. I can tell you; I’ve been there, and I will be again.

I feel Mykki has too: she is a transformer, a rager, someone who has left and returned to performing like so many of my friends, comrades, students, and intrigues. Like me, I think she finds the exit door from professional visibility is a revolving one. “I want to be here now,” I once heard her sing, “because the future is stupid!” And here we are, stupidly, in that present. Mykki is an alter ego, of course, a messy bitch who lives for drama. But don’t conflate her with Joanne the Scammer. Mykki will clock your nazi white Ass, and, if High School Never Ends is any indication, she also subscribes to the Frank Ocean mantra “I never ever fuck someone I wouldn’t beat up” or words to that effect. Call it black queer studies, or queer black studies, or black feminism. Or call it a troubling reverie up I had one night in my brown study: not the “brown” that is halfway to white, but the rocking posture you assume to keep the body thinking and feeling when you feel yourself trapped in some white supremacist freeze-frame.

I’m not the old head here to tell you “high school ends”, “it gets better,” or any mainsplaining shit like that. I refuse to be a man, and Mykki does to, (even when she is). In the video, she plays a game of fuck, marry, kill with the neo-Nazi youth that, quiet as it’s kept, the Left in Berlin has never stopped battling. I fuck with our Anarcho-Marxist dadbros so you may not need to: each one teach one.

After turning the video off after Woodkid’s sweet solo, my dear comrade suggested immediately I teach this video in my class next semester. I jumped up for a second, But then I thought about the student demand. I thought about triggering, boundaries, and this little thing called the traumatic kernel of the Real. (A little Lacan now and then does the body good, but I can also spare you). So I’m going to let that simmer a bit, and let this one circulate in the meantime out in what some smart folks down in Durham may have begun to call the Black Outdoors.

The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman in Conversation with J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak

The Black Outdoors tickles my throat; better hyperlink. Are we there yet? Are we here now? I may not be ready for it, but I want to be ready. And I can’t not want you to be ready to; you who I fall a little more in love with every look.

I need to learn the dark arts of black feminist refusal, which are my constant study, and I’m so grateful some one schools me in them every day. “Life is a school, unless you’re a fool,” Carmen McRae once sang. “But the learning brings you pain.” She added.I hear her, but I also hear Billy sing “hush now, don’t explain.” So for  now I end this appreciation to an album and the black feminist poethics that helped me listen to it by saying, bring the pain!

And, possibly, a small proposition: Worry the line, but teach to the letter.

I hear José listening, so I’ll shut up now and thank him for tuning in from an undisclosed Caribbean location. I can say it now: no one belongs here more than us.

And so, my constant teaching has been this, with a nod to the old gods whose language I won’t speak here or now: a greeting passed from mouth to mouth, head to head, from deepest darkest Africa to chocolate city. Let the master be your messenger. Let the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house. Just don’t let yourself be caught out up in it! Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The sky is open. All the rest is commentary. And night moves.

The #Orlando Syllabus

24 Jun

Eng-Beng Lim

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Week 1 From Gender to Gun Performativity

Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

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

 

Week 2 Surviving Killabilities

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

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

After Orlando, Middle East Research and Information Project

LGBT People of Color refuse to be erased after Orlando

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

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

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

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

Queer Suicide: A Teach-in

Malik Gaines, We Are Orlando

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

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

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

 

Week 3 Laughing at Masculinist Rage, Corruption and Mass Shooting

Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa

Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger”

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women

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

#SayHerName: why Kimberle Crenshaw is fighting for forgotten women

Wendy Brown: How Neoliberalism Threatens Democracy: YouTube video

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

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

Jacques Derrida on “phallogocentrism”

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

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

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

 

Week 4 Getting Toxic and Terrifying

Considering Hate, Whitlock and Bronski 1-71

Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A Talk

Toxic Masculinity in the U.S Gun Phallocracy

The Hypermasculine Violence of Omar Mateen and Brock Turner

Terror Begins at Home

Toxic Masculinity and Murder

Student Op-Ed: Toxic Masculinity

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

The Under-Discussed Role of Toxic Masculinity

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

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Considering Hate, 71-147

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

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

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

Two Dead in UCLA

Berkeley gunman kills student taken hostage

25 years later: Henry’s hostage crisis remembered

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

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

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

James Downs: Stop saying Omar Mateen was gay

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

The perception of Asian dads and masculinity

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

Racist at vigil sends online message

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

 

Week 5 Empire, Trump

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity”

Amanda Taub, “The Rise of American authoritarianism

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

The braggart with the ducktail who would be president

Meet the shock troops of Trump’s America

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

Activity among white supremacists continues to surge

States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016

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

How not to study Donald Trump

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

American Horror Story

A Note from Mike Davis about the Second Amendment

 

Week 6 Orlando

Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims

Paricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought

June Jordan Papers

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here

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

Shanghai $5.5 Billion Disney Officially Opens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Ties: Queer Blood, Donations, and Citizenship

 

Week 7 Gun Phallocracy: Colonial and Capitalist Deadlocks

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

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

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

The NRA’s Complicity in Terrorism

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

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

The Orlando massacre was one of 43 shootings yesterday

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

Stop the gun violence: Ban assault weapons

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

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

Strict military gun control should be our model

We need a radical movement for gun control

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brock Turner and Me

Republicans Are Erasing LGBTQ People From Their Own Tragedy

The Democrats are Boldly Fighting For a Bad, Stupid Bill

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

 

Week 8 Performance & Patriarchal Pathologies

Bechdel, Fun Home

Tennessee Wiliams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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

California pastor celebrates massacre at Orlando gay club

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

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

Sylvia Plath reads “Daddy

Diana DiMassa, The Complete Hothead Paisan

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I knew 17 who died in Orlando

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

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

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

Only when I am dancing can I feel this free

Richard Kim, Please Don’t Stop the Music

In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club

 

Week 10

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

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

14 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar

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

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.”

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

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

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

2 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toxic Masculinity

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

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

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

more guns = more violent crimes = more homicide

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

In particular, the pepper spray cop at UC Davis who casually assaulted student Occupy protestors became emblematic of cavalier, campus corporatization rising in tandem with a militarized police presence that is not only out of line but rewarded for their transgressions. For instance, the aforementioned cop was awarded $38,000 for the “emotional suffering” and “psychological injuries” he endured for pulling the trigger of his pepper spray can on 21 students. His notoriety was so widespread that memes ridiculing him and the morally bankrupt decision of the court’s disability settlement saturated the internet.
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In spite of the public outcry, there is little reform in the police force or cutback from its brutal militarization. One could say that the unmitigated violation of students and their rights by the militarized cops on the campuses of California in 2011 abetted University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing’s violent extraction of Sam Dubose’s civil and human rights with a fatal gunshot in 2015. Both cops casually or involuntarily clicked on the triggers provided to them by the neoliberal state but it took four years and hundreds of other violations before any misbehaving cop was even deemed potentially criminal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Guns

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity”

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

From Sister George to Lonesome George? Or, Is The Butch Back? By Jack Halberstam

16 Jul

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While as recently as a decade ago, many butches could still be found in their natural habitats – dyke bars and softball teams – and while some could even be spotted in the wild, in recent years, their numbers have declined leading some scientists to predict their eventual disappearance. Indeed, like the passenger pigeon or Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise that died in 2012, the butch seemed like a category whose time had passed – a relic, a fossil, a victim of cultural climate change and an irredeemable symbol of past times that a new generation was eager to forget. But, in a kind of miraculous adaptation, the butch, like the Eurasian beaver or the Dalmatian Pelican, seems to have trembled on the brink of extinction and…made a remarkable recovery!

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From the Broadway musical based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir of growing up butch with a closeted gay father, Fun Home, to Lea Delaria and the consortium of butches (what is the word for a group of butches? A Charm? A Pace? A Kennel? A Brace? A Barren? A Murder? A Parliament? Or, my favorite – a Bale? I am going with bale of butches) in Orange is the New Black, from Charlize Theron’s turn as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max to the hockey playing tomboy in Inside Out, we would seem to have a bale of butches in popular culture right at the very moment that the category has supposedly gone out of style.


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Are the new representations of butches ghostly after-images of a recent past that has come and gone and taken its place within a pantheon of gay and lesbian histories relegated to the past by the recent triumphalism of the gay marriage era? Or, conversely, are they harbingers of a new future of gender variability that has expanded beyond man and woman into a wide ranging set of expressions of the gendered body? Is butch back or was it never gone? Has butch been around long enough to become trendy? Or, in an era of unprecedented visibility for transgender embodiment, does butch represent an obstinate fragment of an older paradigm, still capable of generating both fascination and fear?

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 27:  Amelie Mauresmo of France plays a backhand during the women's singles third round match against Flavia Pennetta of Italy on Day Six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

It was less than a decade ago at Wimbledon that French tennis player, Amelie Mauresmo was accused by Lindsay Davenport of “playing like a guy” and then described by Martina Hingis of being “half a man.” Now Mauresmo is the super effective coach for a male top ten player – Andy Murray. And, only six years ago, South African runner, Caster Semenya was subjected to a clearly racist “gender test” when her unapologetically athletic appearance led to suspicions about her masculinity, drug use and so on. Now, on the current world cup winning women’s soccer squad there are several visibly butch players and plenty that are openly queer. How, then, did we leap, in the last year or so, from uniform expressions of disgust, suspicion and dismay directed at the masculine female form to empathy, recognition and even acceptance?

17mag-17talk-t_CA0-blog427In an interview in The New York Times Magazine in May of this year, Alison Bechdel, who appeared in the photograph accompanying the piece dressed in a very smart tailored suit, was asked:

“In “Fun Home,” you wrote about becoming a connoisseur of masculinity at a young age. Today a young person like you would be more likely to identify as transgender than gay. Is the butch lesbian endangered?”

Well, first of all, great question!! Second, wow, in The New York Times? Really? Third, well, is the butch endangered? Bechdel answers adroitly:

“I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body. I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.

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So, is butch the designation of a new space or an old space? The article is ambivalent and implies both that butch is an old-fashioned form of identification that is in danger of being eclipsed by transgenderism and that it is a “new space in the world.” And maybe that captures perfectly what shall hereafter be known as “the temporal paradox of the butch” – it is out of time and ahead of its time and behind the times all at once. Butch is simultaneously a marker of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag” or “the visceral pull of the past on the supposedly revolutionary present” and of certain forms of what Juana Maria Rodriguez terms “sexual futures.” The uncanny, uncertain, dislocated and indefinable terrain of the butch competes with our sense of the stubborn, recalcitrant, unmoving and unmoved essence of the butch. Butch was supposed to fade away as a category precisely because it encapsulated the ugly, the dowdy, the backward and the tragic (Stone Butch Blues not Stone Butch Ecstasy), but its calcified intransigence may actually have equipped the category for survival!

A close friend sent me the clip of young Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (thanks GG!). The show-stopping song, penned by the incomparable Lisa Kron, that has thrilled audiences on Broadway found an even larger audience when Lucas performed it at the Tony’s awards this year. While singing children are nothing new and generally kind of irritating, lesbian-themed Broadway shows and songs about youthful identifications with butch women are as rare as gay men on football teams or straight ladies in the power tools section at Home Depot. So, this song and this musical had few cultural traditions upon which to draw. Amazing then that the song is so effective, so moving, so…emotional!

“Ring of Keys” tells the story of an encounter between the young Alison and the adult butch who walked into the diner where Alison and her closeted father were eating. Sydney sings:

Someone just walked in the door, like no one I ever saw before, I feel…I feel…

I don’t know where you came from, I wish I did, I feel so dumb… I feel…I feel.

Your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you’re wearing.

Your short hair and your dungarees, and your lace up boots and your keys, ohhh, your ring of keys!

“I know you,” she sings, “you’re beautiful…no, you’re handsome”! This song is just so…it’s…I feel…I feel…Ellipsis in the song conveys the unspeakability of this articulation of butch cross-generational identification. There are no words for such affect, no precedents for generations of butches past who may also have seen strong, gender-queer female-bodied women and who may have wanted to claim them. As novelistic descriptions by Leslie Feinberg and others of just such ghostly encounters between adult, abject butches and the young proto-butches who want to find their likenesses in the world demonstrate, in the past, the butch adult would have been more likely to spark terror and fear in the young queer’s heart than adoration, acceptance and identification.

What the young Alison feels for the anonymous butch who crosses her path has no words, cannot be culled from any archive of feelings, gay or straight, and so is captured in that open mouthed, soundless wonder that punctuates the song. The mouth, open and silent, mimics the ring of keys that say everything without speaking, that jangle a noisy song of their own without words, that say butch in a way that ordinary language could not.

The success of Alison Bechdel’s work, long overdue and so well deserved, both exemplifies and contributes to the evolution and repopulation of butches. Butches can now be found in sports and in the arts, on the soccer field and on Broadway, on TV (Orange is the New Black) and in movies. Only 7 years ago, we had an entire TV series, The L Word, that represented butchness as “the B word” that dare not speak its name. Despite the fact that the character of Shane (Katherine Moennig) drew heavily on the history of butch sexiness, she never could claim that history, name it or own it. And when a butch character was introduced, Moira played by masculine of center actor Daniela Sea, they quickly transitioned to trans leaving the category of butch stranded like a missing link, like a bad memory to be Pousseypromo_croppedexpunged from queer representation.

But now, in Orange is the New Black, Lea Delaria’s character “Big Boo,” has the letters B-U-T-C-H tattooed on her arm and is not the only butch on the prison block either. Black butches on the show, including Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) represent a much longer history of non-traditional Black genders that may or may not be captured by the term “butch” at all.


Game of Thrones has its own bale of butches including Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) who represents a tall, strapping, princess-saving heroic knightly butch, and Arya Stark (Massie Williams) a renegade princess turned sword fighter and monk. For more comic butches, think Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) of Glee who plays a gloriously mean, bully butch athletic coach competing with the Glee club for school funds.

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The butch is, to continue our wildlife conceit, neither fish nor fowl. But to introduce another rhetorical device, the butch is neither cis-gender nor simply transgender, the butch is a bodily catachresis. The Greek word, catachresis, means the rhetorical practice of misnaming something for which there would otherwise be no words (I feel I got this formulation from bullyblogger pal Tavia Nyong’o but not sure from where). Butch is always a misnomer – not male, not female, masculine but not male, female but not feminine, the term serves as a placeholder for the unassimilable, for that which remains indefinable or unspeakable within the many identifications that we make and that we claim. For Derrida, catachresis captures the inherent linguistic instability in all signifying practices and for Spivak it names the inherent colonial violence lurking in the practice of naming and identifying, systematizing and translating. And so, in this era of LGBT rights and recognition, let the butch stand as all that cannot be absorbed into systems of signification, legitimation, legibility, recognition and legality.

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Even as the butch seems to be back in circulation, I do not think this representational presence is a marker of social acceptance, rather, the butch, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, survives or fades away depending upon the levels of toxicity in the air. Unlike the canary however, and now I wish I had never introduced said bird in the first place, the butch thrives in toxic conditions and fades away in the clear air of apparent freedom. The butch is back, in other words, and here the butch is not canary like at all, in fact forget the damn canary, because we need a reminder that recognition is NOT freedom, that the absorption of the few at the expense of many others is not liberation and that the illegible, the unassimilable, the inconsolable, the illegitimate multitudes still await a coming emancipation. The society that embraces the butch will be ordered in a way that we cannot yet imagine. Our current social order, after all, with or without gay marriage, with or without mainstream images of transgender bodies, is the one that rendered the butch as the anachronistic, useless, dowdy misfit in the first place.

To quote a smart rapper, don’t call it a come back, we’ve been here before. Butches have flickered in and out of cultural visibility for at least the last hundred years. They have survived wars, economic depressions, homophobic panics, gentrification, petrification, Andrea Dworkin and Camille Paglia, stupefaction, French cinema, the 80’s, and both film versions of Sex in the City. Despite flannel shirt shortages, shifting fashion trends towards androgynous looks, the trendiness of transgenderism, a severe height disadvantage in relation to many femmes, and new levels of emotional sensitivity in queer communities, the butch has survived and lives to wear another ring of keys.

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Whether, in the future, the butch will hit a rough patch in the evolution of sexual ecologies and die out like the Golden Toad, or whether the butch has the capacity to replicate under precarious conditions remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, live or die, the butch, represents a piece of queer history that remains unspeakable and unspoken and all the more resilient for it.

Should The Vajayjay Speak?

16 Apr

Back in January of this year, 2015, a curious story began to circulate in online education journals like Inside Higher Ed: “A student group at Mount Holyoke College has decided to cancel its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues, saying the play excludes the experiences of transgender women who don’t have a vagina.” Now, I am no big fan of Vagina Monologues, or any kind of speaking genitalia for that matter (I am flashing on a show I saw on HBO a few years ago on “The Puppetry of the Penis”…don’t ask…don’t tell…). But, despite my aversion to genital soliloquies, and my general disinterest from the get go in The Vagina Monologues, I still do not understand the premise for the cancelation.

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If the students had decided that the play was too focused on universalizing US experiences of womanhood, or that it participated in an imperialist feminist paradigm that cast North American feminist body politics as representative of all versions of body politics, I might have thought ok, shrugged and moved on. But canceling it because it does not include the experiences of trans women or women who lack vaginas just did not add up. The play is not saying that women without vaginas or that women with surgically constructed vaginas are not women after all, it is just saying…well, what is it saying? Love your vagina? Love whatever you have that is not a penis? Love your penis that can now be reterrritorialized as your vagina? Talk to your vagina? Listen to your vajayjay…not sure but it is NOT saying, transwomen are not women.

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Like the debates around the inclusion of trans-women in historically women’s colleges, this all feels like a storm in a teacup. It is clear that we are living at a time when gender norms have so definitively shifted beyond stable concepts of man and woman, that there should be no need for anguished and urgent debates about the admission of transgender women to women’s colleges or about the extension of monologues about female genitalia to trans women with or without surgically constructed vaginas (talkative or not). Trans women will be admitted to spaces formerly reserved for women born women precisely because the activism that would enable us to see an expanded and expanding category of “woman” has already taken place. The current activism on college campuses now calling for for the expansion of the category of “woman” to trans women, in fact, is belated and after the fact. Activism is not simply calling for something. Activism is about creating a context within which the thing that you are calling for comes to make sense – this process, in relation to trans womanhood, began back in the early 1990’s with the rise of poststructuralist feminism and queer theory and it comes to bear now on the discussions about gender protocols.

It is of course true that the time for The Vagina Monologues is surely come and gone – and I am not so sure that it was ever here in the first place — but certainly a few generations of enthusiastic college students did perform the play with pride and gusto and who are we to sneer at that. So why not quietly move on from the performance of talking vaginas to other theatrical projects more suited to this historical moment? Can the very vocal and publicized decision to cancel The Vagina Monologues be understood as part of what has been identified as a new censorious mood on college campuses in general? What fuels this new sensitivity on the part of students to all kinds of “problematic” material and is it part of a new millennial moralism?

In recent weeks, articles by Laura Kipnis in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times have generated outrage (and protests in Kipnis’s case) because these authors dared to suggest that we seem to be in the grips of a moral panic on college campuses. While Kipnis took aim at administratively authored “sexual paranoia” at her university, Northwestern, which had taken the form of a ban on consensual relations between professors and students, Shulevitz accused students of “hiding from scary ideas” by deploying the defense of calling for “safe space.” Both Kipnis and Shulevitz articulated what is, I believe, a fairly widely shared belief, that in Kipnis’s words “students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.” We don’t have to agree with everything Kipnis or Shulevitz has to say in order to feel that something has certainly changed in the way that campus politics are transacted.

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And, there are probably many factors that contribute to this “skyrocketing” sense of vulnerability for college students – students have been produced within the neoliberal university as consumers, dependents, debtors, children and pre-professionals. They have been cheated, patronized, exploited and abused. They exit the university with massive amounts of debt, a sense of futility and a need to make money and they want someone to blame. It is always easier to blame the messenger rather than going after the system that produces debt and despair in equal measure. But it is surely a mistake for students to be “calling out” (the new term for demanding accountability) their Gender Studies professors for showing them disturbing material on sexual assault; or calling out their Ethnic Studies professors for showing images of racial violence; or calling out their political theory professors for arguing that power is productive and ubiquitous not local and possessed. Local calls for this or that form of speech to end does not really help anything. Rather than demanding simply that category X be admitted to this or that, we need wide-ranging structural analyses of the production of violence of exclusion and inclusion within neoliberal forms of governance.

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To wind down my rant, let’s turn to an example of what NOT to do as a feminist: In a great episode of Portlandia, Candace (Fred Armisen) and Tony (Carrie Brownstein), the fictional proprietors of the women’s bookstore, Women and Women First, go to a Portland Trailblazers basketball game. They watch the game and are amazed at how much they enjoy it: “these people are really good at what they do!” But then, in a time out, when the Blazer’s cheerleaders come on to dance for the crowd, Toni and Candace become outraged by the exploitation to which they have become witnesses. Candace wonders why the cheerleaders are wearing so little clothing, and they both end up calling for the “liberation” of the “private dancers.” “Let them speak!” yells Candace, “say something! Tell us your stories!” The two feminist pioneers demand a meeting with the dancers in order to “help” them and they ask the dancers to “drop their poms poms.” Providing them with a “safe space,” they call on them to “read and resist” rather than dance and be oppressed and they create a new performance piece for them that involves telling the audience who they are and crawling out from under the oppressive regime of the NBA – all accompanied by a primal scream performed by Toni. The episode is hilarious as a good-natured satire of a feminism that has misguidedly become a crusade to protect and rescue.

Portlandia, Season 4, Feminist Bookstore Dance

Activism, Portlandia reminds us, is not the transaction of change through the blotting out of ‘problematic’ speech  on behalf of new disciplinary norms of conduct. Inclusion can be as corrosive a technique of rule as exclusion and speech as much as silence can be a vector for oppression. In an era when universities are saddling their students with debt, transforming their teaching staff from permanent to adjunct labor, paying their administrators corporate salaries and buying up all the real estate in their neighborhoods for luxury housing, calls for inclusion have to be accompanied by broader critiques of the transformation of the university. In a speech at Berkeley last year titled: “Free Speech Is Not For Feeling Safe,” Wendy Brown reminded us that:” today, the gears of the machine don’t clang and grind out there: they are are soft, quiet, and deep inside us.”  Trans women should certainly be admitted to women’s colleges, and vaginas probably do need to stop monologuing but inclusive policies, safe space, correct speech and sexual paranoia will not change the middle-class demographics of the university and will not stop the university from its rapid evolution into a factory for the production of the next generation of bankers. What we need are new and inventive modes of protest not more safe space.

No Cane, No Gain: Harry, Queer Discipline and Me, by Eng-Beng Lim

29 Mar

To cane or not to cane, that is the question: Somewhere between the mirror and the international stage, Singaporeans and Singaphiles alike must all face the cane as the instrument and metaphor of state regulation in loco parentis whether or not the name of its founding father Lee Kuan Yew is invoked. The question has  polyvalent resonances for political commentators, cultural pundits, media watchdogs and queer theorists attuned to this model city-state, and is endlessly reproducible. It is on everyone’s lips as soon as Singapore or LKY is mentioned even on the fly at a cocktail party in D.C. or an Asian Studies seminar in Durham. Whether it has to do with the existential or the parodic, Lee, the cane and Singapore are a guaranteed lightning rod for thinking about liberal democracy, capitalist social formation and political subjectivity.

Now that Harry has died, what will happen to that perennial inquiry?

As a kid growing up on the island, one of the prompts for my postcolonial English composition class under Lee’s immaculate administration was “‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Discuss!” The unvarnished and phallic test question is barely able to conceal its paddling tendencies even with the padding of the verby imperative “Discuss!” On paper, it was an exercise for organized thinking (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) but all I can remember was my teenage terror, trembling pen in hand, at having to expose the rituals of corporal punishment in my social surround. Worse still was to find the rattan cane with frayed edges hidden behind some closet at home.

More than LKY, my immediate references for authority as a self-hating queerlet were two competing domestic regimes with my domineering live-in grandmother as an established matriarch and my dad as the emergent patriarchy. Both were immigrants from China and simultaneously tender and terrifying as they wielded the cane in different ways. In the case of my grandma, the cane was also aimed at school bullies in the neighborhood who dared to pick on my sisters. I secretly loved the vigilantism of her Hokkien street justice even as it was an implicit warning she could turn on me just the same if I misbehaved (she never did.)

Cane-talk often incited a will to action, making the instrument itself at once legendary and real. I don’t remember now if it was even used with any regularity or at all…

The assignment to write about caning was ostensibly for a grammar lesson but it felt like a kind of Chinese family tradition. And that family was also a nation with a Sino-chauvinistic edge. I am talking about a national pedagogy led by LKY with a disciplinary moral center and an operational racial logic. It stayed with me as a writer around how I think and unthink. If pedagogy sounds a lot like ideology, a quick revisit of Louis Althusser’s notes about educational ISAs (Ideological State Apparatus) may clarify their intersection or interanimation. As Althusser notes, the school is paramount in the state’s arsenal of ISAs that propagate in a concealed and symbolic way ideologies that elicit rather than enforce public consent for capitalist social formation. As a main conduit of bourgeois self-production, the school hones the common ideology of the ruling class through captive rehearsals (“the obligatory audience of the totality of children… eight hours a day”) that are like parental guidance. The difference in Singapore is “[w]e are ideology-free,” says Lee in a 2007 interview with The New York Times in reference to the state’s illiberal pragmatism that is based on a can-do (others say cane-do), do-it-over ethos.

It is no wonder then that writing a response about the rod and its virtues at school brought out every juvenile authority I thought I wielded as a class monitor, pledge leader, gardening club president, and school prefect. Denuded of queer agency, my compensatory overdrive for delusional moral leadership took the form of ever more extra-curricular activities. If the neoliberal regime had an early model of exhaustive excellence, this overdrive was one of its forceful charge. From oratorical, singing, drawing, handwriting and translating competitions, I did them all! Drama society, audiovisual club, boy scouts, bring them on! My singular drive for competitive endeavors was trained and destined for the free market. As an all-around go-getter, Teamy the bee, the mascot for the national productivity campaign (1982) would approve of me, as would Singa the Courtesy Lion:

Teamy

“Good better best! Never let it rest, if it’s good make it better, if it’s better, make it best!” says Teamy the Bee, mascot of the National Productivity Campaign, 1982, Singapore.

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Singa the Courtesy Lion, the mascot of the National Courtesy Campaign launched by the Ministry of Culture in 1982, Singapore.

My law-abiding perfectionism seemed to know no bounds. Not only would it be rude to talk back to Daddy Dearest in his anthropomorphic drag as cartoon apian or lion, it would have been a total betrayal of his patriarchal patronage for my own good.

The operationalization of cane pleasure and pain by Lee, one part Confucius/Asian Values, one part Ayn Rand, and one part cartoon bureaucracy, was thus set in motion for Singaporeans of my generation. It puts the interrogation of the original question around the caning of American teenager Michael Fay in 1994 for public vandalism a freaky sideshow. What’s more notable in that spanking-gate was the way it brought Bill Clinton, Larry King and William Safire together as media mansplainers of that authoritarian regime over there in the East. As Safire opined earnestly in his 1994 NYT Op-ed, “Lee Kuan Yew, the aging dictator of Singapore… Lashed U.S. by way of Fay… so as to make himself an ethnic hero of Asia.”

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As the nation-state mourns for Lee’s passing on March 23, 2015 at the age of 91, the symbolism of the cane hovering over the discourse of Singapore runs the risk of nullifying its own excess and the question of national hyperbole around the loss of a Father Figure. So closely identified is the Asian patriarch with the garden city-state invented by him in the late twentieth century as a new temple of efficiency that the two have become one and the same. The mourners call him the Father, and thank him for the material wealth afforded to them. A FaceBook entry depicts a well-groomed male professional leaning on an expensive car professing his gratitude for Lee: “I love you…Without you, I could have been a construction worker in a foreign land.” The eulogies from Singaporean citizens who identify as his sons and daughters, the majority of whom he had never seen or touched, attest to the strengths of the affective binds that the game of cane, the disciplined nation and the love of Daddy Dearest bring together for better or for worse.

As Singapore holds its state funeral procession today (29 Mar 2015) for Harry with Bill Clinton, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and other world leaders in attendance, an undated open letter of resignation from Singa the Courtesy Lion is resurfacing on the internet.

Singa fu

The death of a national mascot and its ignored funeral portend the end of an era just the same. Singa is evidently sick of being polite and kind, and no longer gives a shit about creating a gracious society. It refuses to be a cover for the ugly Singaporean, and no endless campaigns with cartoon niceties are going to conceal a nation of cruel optimists or the selfish bourgeois materialists of the system.

Will “no cane, no gain” dissipate as a national axiom or will it make a softer comeback post-Harry? And will queer discipline qua neoliberal excellence find a different form? Only time and more hurt-so-good memories between Harry and me will tell.


No cane no gain