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Should The Vajayjay Speak?

16 Apr Portlandia, Season 4, Feminist Bookstore Dance

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.

vaginamonologues

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 Teamy

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.

Singa

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

The Shipped and the Bereft, or, Seven Backward Glances that won’t turn you to Salt

6 Mar insp_sexual_tension_preview

By Tav Nyong’o

insp_sexual_tension_preview7. It’s S/K, not K/S (yes, it matters)

 As any slash fiction writer, or semiologist, will tell you, order matters. And so the fantasy of a love relation between Spock and Kirk is no more reversible than any other romantic entanglement. Identification always runs to one side or the other of the slash between Spock and Kirk. Outsider that I am, my own identifications have always run to the half-alien, S/K, not K/S. This is a S/K story.
In the image above, Kirk glances  up from his seat of authority and is startled and allured by the nearness of his enigmatic “number one.” As he extends one arm unnecessarily, invitingly far, draping it over the back of his chair in faux insouciance, Spock leans in with both arms around him, as if he is about wrap Kirk up in the folds of his logic. Okay, maybe this is a K/S story too … we will have to see how it goes.

KirkSpockWallSfSI never quite got it, by the way. Slash fiction, that is: the fan genre of narrative that fantasizes catching Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mister Spock in flagrante delicto. I’ll say it here: William Shatner does nothing for me. And I think I identify too much as a Vulcan to really relish being with a Vulcan like Leonard Nimoy. So despite a queer trekkie, I never “shipped” Kirk and Spock, as the kids now say. At least not until the latest reboot of the franchise — with its casting of queer, doe-eyed Zachary Pinto in the role a knowing wink at its shipping audience — practically begged me to.

6. Slash is neither the love of sameness nor of difference, but of the performative punctuation of the two

A slash is a punctuation mark, not an equal sign. Two bodies in color put the rest of the world in greyscale. They are not the same, not different. Not “men.” The military hierarchy, the ship of state, the errand into the astral wilderness, these masculine concerns are as nothing compared to a friendly look of concern across the species divide on the harsh passage through life. Two actors given genre roles on television in the Sixties invented one of the twentieth centuries great cinematic love affairs, conducted through the subtle innuendo they developed in a command performance that, by the time the franchise was reinvented for the millennial generation, had to be incorporated into the making and marketing of the film, a knowing if anxious calculation that covert queer tension could outlive the closet.
 roflbot-kirkspockxishipFor more on the queer performativity of punctuation, see here. The principle that a slash is a punctuation mark, not an equal sign applies, by the way, to the delight slash fantasy takes in reconjugating the relationship between actor and role. Long before Hollywood wrapped it’s head around openly queer actors playing straight, slash writers and artists understood the pleasures to be found in the interstices between what is seen and what is shown, delighting, as proper fans will, in candid shots of the actors on set, or in their leisure time, displaying the kind of foreplay affection that would find, in their fan fictions and images, a more heated description. Depicting not just the characters but the actors in shipped roles becomes a key more fan participation; creepy at times, to be sure, but also silly and playful, an little sharing out of the unshareable (J-L Nancy) in an unequal, unfair, hostile and unforgiving world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA tumblr_kxxjxje0Fo1qaoozxo1_500One received wisdom holds that slash fiction is actually a genre written by and for straight women, who insist on projecting romantic scenarios where no screenwriter had gone before. Despite being an ardent Trekkie, I have however never really immersed myself in this particular fan archive, so I just, a bit idly, imagine slash to be a kind of feminine ecriture, a queer feminist rewriting of a master text whose blatant violations of the Bechdel test admits no possible response short of a complete transcoding. In this world, Kirk and Spock are not lonely bachelors stranded in space, but loving bedfellows who exchange thoughts and sentiments (the one more thought, the other more sentiment) and give themselves over to langour and play.

Kirk-Spock-Behind-the-Scenes-james-t-kirk-7759433-650-450a2100fbd46106c9f66399fb79bf059a6I suspect, nonetheless, as does the cartoonist below, that any number of straight men also “ship” Kirk/Spock (probably, fewer I am guessing ship Spock/Kirk). I have no novel theory of heteroflexibility to offer to account for this: Freud taught us a century ago that everyone is capable of making a same sex object choice and in fact has already done so in their unconscious. And if shipping is just having a wet dream under erasure, perhaps it is no surprise to find Kirk and Spock still secluding themselves from this generation’s pornographic spotlight. Not closeted, not self-hating, they are simply discreet. Three’s a crowd.

826480_original5. Spock is a Jew

 See #7 above. And “Vulcan logic” could be another term, of course, for “kabbalistic” ritual; according to my web sleuthing,  the other features of Spock’s Jewishness are very apparent. The absence of an openly Jewish character from the ostentatiously multicultural cast of the original Star Trek is a historical chronotope of a moment of American assimilation that is even now passing, one rendered all the more glaring by the casting of two Jewish actors to play the leads: assimilation into whiteness in action. Hiding in plain sight, however, was the Live Long and Prosper gesture of the Vulcan race, invented by the actor Leonard Nimoy based on a sign he had encountered during his orthodox upbringing. Through this gesture, Nimoy held open an allegorical door for all of us for whom the price of assimilation into or accommodation with white supremacy always remained too high. Now everywhere on the web, even in outer space, hands can be seen making the gesture, hashtaged #LLAP.

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4. Spock is Asian, and a woman

The orientalist overcoding of the Vulcans as some ancient wise race from the East increasingly finds a contemporary sequel in manga depictions of an Asian Spock and blond Kirk. Again, I have no theories beyond the obvious nod to postmodern pastiche and cultural globalization, but I do find it both interesting (and maybe even a bit worrisome) that K/S should be pulled out of taciturn obscurity and made to conform too easily to a legible East/West dualism. On the other hand, when the creativity capacity of queer fabulists the world over fully outstrip the source text, they unsettle a certain white supremacist logic of discovery and conquest, opening outer space to other, decolonial uses.

It is also interesting to see the loving pair grow younger as they age, a fate as inapposite as that of the original Number One in the un-signed 1964 pilot for Star Trek, played by Majel Barrett. Somehow the brainy, intellectual foil to the passionate captain did not scan for studio executives when that foil was female bodied. Although Spock appears in that original pilot, he steps into the Barrett’s role as number one in the series proper, and, thereby, into the romantic sub-plot of aloof feminine reserve played against passionate male impetuousness that she had set up in that unnumbered, unaired episode.

Number-One-star-trek-women-8427144-750-600The original pilot didn’t feature the African American starfleet member Lt. Uhura, but it was a story — deemed “too cerebral” by the network — of human captivity. Captain Pike (Kirk’s predecessor) is trapped by an alien race, the Talosians, who tries to get him to reproduce with another human, captured in an earlier crash, in order to generate a servile class. He is obliged to make love to a trapped woman at the pain of being sent mad by the mind-controlling Talosians, Vina, but his contempt and hatred of being enslaved prove too strong. (This is a classic motif in the white mythology of Anglo-Saxon liberty by the way: slavery may be a condition suited for other, lesser races, but not for us!) While the Talosians snare the two additional women from the starship Enterprise, the Captain won’t deign to mate with them either (female willingness and suitability for both marriage and slavery is, of course, assumed by both the Talosians and the screenwriters of this teleplay). Having survived a raw clash of wills, the Talosians give up and return all three starfleet members to the ship, leaving behind Vina who, it is revealed (spoiler alert) is not young and beautiful, but aged and grotestquely disfigured from her crash. Too late to be rescued by reality, Vina waves a sad goodbye to the Captain before walking off, hand in hand with the illusion of him created for her by the Talosians.

Having turned down three possible Eves in a single pilot episode, Adam is himself replaced by the second pilot (and first aired) episode of the series. Now we have a new, familar captain, James T. Kirk, who will have many lives and loves over the course of the series, but as far as the shipped and bereft are concerned, each such heterosexual plot point will be another illusion masking his singular, imperceptible, Number One love.The plot of rejected pilot, after all, could have been cribbed directly from the argument of William Blake’s poem “The Angel,” from Songs of Experience (1974):

I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild;
Witless woe, was ne’er beguil’d!

And I wept both night and day
And he wip’d my tears away
And I wept both day and night
And hid from him my hearts delight

So he took his wings and fled:
Then the morn blush’d rosy red:
I dried my tears & armd my fears,
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again:
I was arm’d, he came in vain:
For the time of youth was fled
And grey hairs were on my head.

Blake is K/S, by the way, I think. At least in his dreams.

3. Spock isn’t Black, but Star Trek began as a captivity narrative

Which brings us to Uhura/Spock in the series reboot. Somehow the re-inventors of the franchise decided that both Spock and Lt. Uhura had to be sexed up, and given a more dramatic and turbulent inner life. Rivals for the captain’s affection (the actor who created the role of Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, also read for the part of Spock, which was a non-gendered casting), Uhura and Spock find themselves in the update thrown into a tempestous teen romance. Technically a prequel, this new scenario also plays off the idea that the starfleet officers are all younger, more impetuous, confused. (Which was is civilization heading, by the way?)
Taking all this in stride, shippers have decided that Uhura/Spock is real, but only because Spock is still confused about his feelings for another man and because, like many a white gay man before and after him, he is so compelled by what he projects to be the sassy, strong resilience of black women that he is prepared to go along with a relationship, even one with zero sparks, in order to be a little nearer to the source of that glamor. A little callous, a little racist, K/S and S/K shippers alike find it easier to imagine a cross species relationship than an interracial one, at least when one half of that race question is black.

PSSpockUhuraRomantic Are shippers just digging deeper into homonormative pathologies, or are they displaying the restless and recombinant inventiveness of a connective generation, when they attempt to resolve the real contradictions of race, gender, and sexuality by reimagining slash fiction, beyond the erotic dyad, as a kind of super team: S/U/K?

tumblr_mmwdmfScuS1qeqx7ko1_5002. Where life is an illusion, love is only logical.

The enduring appeal of slash, such as I can discern it, is that even the nerdy, awkward, overly rational and reticent can and need love. I doubt this appeal has lost its relevance in our era of alleged nerd ascendancy. Anyway, Spock wasn’t that nerdy, wasn’t that geeky. He was aloof and enigmatic, loyal and logical, cool and conflicted. Now that the actor who created the role has passed on, the actor who succeeded him might be able to perform out from under his long shadow. More likely, however, as Joseph Roach notes of all acts of surrogation, the real replacement for Spock will be found elsewhere than in his official successor.

1. Number your days

Spock cannot be replaced. He is finite, and falls back into the one. An alert shipper notes that the hashtag #LLAP may be too  crypto-Christian in its patterns of memorialization, especially in the image of an afterlife that is implicitly promised. The Vulcan do not offer that sign to the dead. When Spock or Kirk die (as they seem to die repeatedly in the incompossible worlds of Star Trek, where Adam sins and does not sin) the surviving lover refuses to receive a parting benediction in his mourning. Live long and prosper? I shall do neither. Live long and prosper. No.

The shipped and the bereft are thus brought back to the one, which teaches us to number our days, that we might get a head of wisdom.

neitherIn Memoriam: Leonard Simon Nimoy. Mar 26, 1931 – Feb 27, 2015

Fifty Shades of Zzzzzzzzzz by Jack Halberstam

25 Feb 50-shades

fifty-shades-of-grey-movieHalf way through the erotic snooze fest (no seriously, the woman next to me was snoring 10 minutes in!!), Fifty Shades of Grey (FSOG), our eponymous hero presents his lover to be with an offer she can’t refuse in the form of a multi page contract. While conventional courting material used to include roses and chocolates, in our neo-liberal world order, romance is now filed under “C” for “consent” or “contractual” depending upon your location. The contract that our heroine receives in FSOG, lists the sexual activities that Mr. Grey proposes for them to undertake along with check boxes in which she can indicate her preferences and disinclinations. Lawyers and bureaucrats might be salivating at this point, but for the rest of us, this seems like an emphatically decent proposal with very little frisson.

new-fifty-shades-of-grey-poster__oPtThe heroine of FSOG, Anastasia Steele played by a winsome if vacant Dakota Johnson, goes over the contract line by line while biting her lip—her signature (and only) sexy move—and, after putting her newly earned English literature degree to work in decoding the document in front of her, surface reading it if you like, she gives her suitor his answers. Yes, she will agree to light whipping, some bondage, the use of slings and even the use of some designated sex toys. But, and our respect for her is supposed to grow at this point, she has some very clear limits. Thinking back to readings from her Gender Studies classes, she remembers that in all negotiations around sex, there are trespassers and line drawers. She will draw the line, she tells Mr. Grey, at “anal fisting.” How about “vaginal fisting?” he counters. Heroine bites lips and makes her decision. No, that is also off limits, and she scratches the item off the list.

Somehow, of all the nasty, filthy, deliciously perverse things that human bodies can do to one another, fisting becomes the sign of going too far. Fisting, of course, has often been linked to queer sex and it indicates a phallic order that exceeds the penis and offers in its place a larger and more dexterous limb. When fisting is the furthermost limit that a sex film can imagine, you know you are in the gray zone alright – not the gray zone of limits pushed and desires tangled, but the gray zone of boredom, banality and avowedly vanilla sex. Having dispensed with the nasties – here represented, and it is worth repeating, as fisting — our sharp, shiny, heroine, Ms. Steele, has onlyFRANCE-ARTS-FIAC one more question: “what is a butt plug?” What is a butt plug? Really? That is your only question here? Not: wait, what? Does our sex really require a contract? Or, I don’t see anything here about water sports. Or, how about, how much are you paying me? No, the lovely and newly deflowered Anastasia Steele has only one remaining, lingering concern …what …is ….a…butt…plug? A butt plug, dear lady, is a plug you put…wait for it…in your butt!

saint-st-valentine_fb

And so we are off and running in the race to drop a blockbuster smack into the middle of a long winter and a hyper commercialized valentine season (yes, it is now a season. But, Valentine, let’s not forget, was a saint who was killed for marrying Christian couples – hence our definition of romance is linked definitively to Christian marriage, not to mention male martyrdom and female subjugation!). But Fifty Shades of Grey also drops smack into the center of a highly charged national conversation about sexual assaults on campus, on which, more in a moment.

The movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey promised dynamic sex, the subjugation of a feisty if inexperienced woman, the allure of a dominant man, but it delivers only a series of pre-queer theory lectures on BDSM and has less effect, I am willing to bet, on the libidinal urges of its audience than an episode of The Golden Girls – and I mean no disrespect here to that glorious and lusty project of octogenarian girl power.

Fifty-Shades-Of-GreyBy the time Mr. Grey, played less winsomely and way too wholesomely, by Jamie Dornan, finally gets Ms. Steele into a kneeling position in his play room awaiting her punishment, we have dispensed with contractual foreplay, we have been teased with silk ties, perfectly laundered shirts and sex toy shopping in a hardware shop, and we feel as an audience that we too by now deserve something – pleasure, punishment, light torture, whatever it is, get on with it! But alas we get nothing close to the Pasolini style torture we have been promised. All that transpires…trigger and spoiler alerts in full affect…is a little spanking, a lot more lip biting, a few feathers, six (count them) pats with a paddle and a whole lot of cross cutting to make the whole deal seem energetic.

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Fifty Shades of Grey, one is tempted to say, is Last Tango in Paris without the butter, without the sex and without Brando and Maria Schneider…What it does have, however, are great aerial shots, lots of hard torsos and soft core lenses, some nice car porn and way too much chatter. But this is not a movie review, partly because FSOG is barely a movie! The question towards which I have inched, for anyone who cares to answer or is still reading, is this: what is the relationship between a widely shared and expressed, seemingly white, cultural fantasy of male domination and female submission, and the epidemic of sexual assault accusations on college campuses across the
U.S. right now?

Of course, it is entirely possible that the two phenomena, sexual assault charges, new laws aroundEntire-Playhouse consent in California, and fifty shades of sex play, have nothing at all to do with each other. One is, after all, about the violent and disastrously non-consensual interactions between young men and
women, and the other is about fantasy and a narrative of consensual engagements between a wealthy man and his aspirational and virginal lover. And yet…And yet, there is certainly more to our odd sexual climate in which a popular romance involving BDSM and selling 100 million copies worldwide sits uncomfortably along side statistics indicating that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college! This weird historical juncture seems made up of part sex panic, part paranoia, part patriarchy, part Peewee Herman (I am not sure which part is Peewee but I sure hope he is in there somewhere).

In September 2014, California became the first state to adopt a law that requires college students to confirm that they have consent for sexual interaction. This law has been dubbed the “yes means yes” act counteracting the date rape rule of thumb that “no means yes and yes means anal” as some fraternity brothers have it. I would like to amend the nickname into “no means no, yes means yes, and maybe means pass the butt plug.” I would also like to designate February as the month for “inviting your fraternity boyfriend to provide oral sex on demand” and March as “take your boyfriend to your gender studies class” month. And as for April, the cruelest month, maybe in April we can begin the Anus Monologues and all think about why “anal” anything and everything has become short hand for punishment, pain and the yuck factor.

No, but seriously, what do we make of the trend for (misrepresented) BDSM in romance fiction and the multiplying charges of sexual assault among college women? As many letter writers to the New York Times Magazine noted in their responses a few weeks ago to a long article about a soured relationship between a male instructor and a female student at Stanford University, the article appeared online with ads for FSOG popping up in the margins. The article in question tells of a relationship that was once completely standard on college campuses (and I am not saying this approvingly necessarily), that of a young female student and a slightly older instructor/TA/professor. Many of those relationships in the past were quickly legitimized through marriage and whatever impropriety may have presented itself in the early moments of the relationship were swept to one side with the explanation of “true love” and so on. Until, that is, the professor replaces his once-student-now-wife with another student-soon to become-wife. In the NYT’s piece,The Stanford Undergraduate and the Mentor a 21 year old junior got involved with her 29 year old mentor, dated him on and off over the course of a year and then, when the relationship soured, she accused him of forcing her to have sex with him. The case, which involves lots of romantic texting, lots of he said/she said back and forth, and lots of accusations and counter-accusations (he assaulted me/she is mentally unstable) is still in the courts.

The New York Times’ piece, like the much ballyhooed Rolling Stone piece, “A Rape on Campus,” before it about accusations of sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus has no answers about sexual assault on campus, only more questions. I am willing to bet that the real problem in the US at any rate in relation to sex on campus has everything to do with limited sex education for high school students, lots of alcohol, and lots of very bad sex. No doubt there are guys who just don’t care whether the woman they are with actually wants to have sex with them, and no doubt there are women who consent and then regret their decision and make assault charges. But ultimately, the problem cannot be legislated one lawsuit at a time. What we need, IMHO, is a robust model of feminism for all genders, a clear program for sex education in high school and some kind of national discussion about what’s wrong with heterosexuality!

So, before wrapping up this rambling attempt to make sense of the confusing and treacherous terrain of sex in college, romantic fantasies and realities and the heterosexual fear of and fascination with the anus, let me just close with three arguments, ok, people always say three, so I will go for four:

Kink1. We should really be asking not what would I do under these circumstances, as either the accused or the accuser, but more importantly, what would James Franco do? I am surprised in fact that, despite his rumored homosex proclivities, his time spent taking queer theory courses at Yale and his role in many a Judd Apatow film, that Franco has not become the designated spokesperson for what’s up with college students and sex. No doubt once he is finished restoring sex scenes to various queer classic films, he will step up and offer us a book, a poem, an installation or even a film on Fifty Shades of Ass Play.

2. Could the real problem be not just bad people taking advantage of naïve people but sheltered people having lots of bad sex with lots of cheap alcohol thrown in for good measure? Can it really be true, as some have asked, that college women are the most vulnerable population when it comes to sexual assault? What do we leave out of the picture when we focus on college campus scenarios to the exclusion of say sexual assault in the home, sexual assault of sex workers, sexual assault of queers? I don’t know the answer to these questions but I think Professor Amy Adler, a law professor at NYU and a smart and creative commentator on sex and the law might – ask her!

3. What is a “butt plug”?

4. And finally, because four questions/conclusions are a bare minimum, can we all stop the violence now – no more horrendous clichés about virgins and powerful, rich, young and handsome men; stop propping up the worn out narratives of heterosexual love and sex; someone shut James Franco up or down; and next time, if you want me to pay lots of money for a two hour snooze fest, please let there be fisting.

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By the way folks, there is actually a pretty good BDSM film out there by Peter Strickland involving two women who play out a series of erotic fantasies of control, domination and submission. The Duke of Burgundy (2015) is beautifully shot and has a credit for the “lingerie manager” so you know it is on the right track. With scenes involving constraint, coffins, golden showers, stilettos, stockings, punishment and delay, the film makes BDSM less of a party trick, less about the equipment and more about repetition, waiting, suspense and reward. Ditch the hen parties on their way to FSOG and take your date to a real film.

And that’s all I have: no haters, just laters baby!

 

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The Good (Enough) Life: On Empire and The Black Queer Son

21 Jan

By Tav Nyong’o

In Adorno’s notorious critique of jazz, he consigned the efforts of black musicians to a quixotic struggle against racial capitalism. “With jazz,” he wrote in 1936, “a disenfranchised subjectivity plunges from the commodity world into the commodity world; the system does not allow for a way out.” This double-bind of the commercial black artist remained on full display during the pilot episode of Empire, black gay director Lee Daniel’s new foray into episodic network television.

empire-tv-series-cast-wallpaperA primetime melodrama about making it in today’s music business, Empire is also a test of the ongoing viability of a mainstream show about black people. As an entertainment about the entertainment business, Empire is more interested in finding a way into the system than imagining a way out. So why was I gripped to my seat for every soapy, cliché-riddled plot twist?

An opening scene from Empire demonstrates that, wrong as Adorno was on the aesthetic merits of black music, he remains disturbingly prescient about the structures of racism and exploitation within which it continues to get made. In the studio, Lucious listens dissatisfied to a singer deliver a ballad. He demands take after take before finally telling her to sing as if she were singing to her brother who has been shot and killed. When that trauma finally triggers the soulful vocal he was listening for, Lucious grins at the sound of a hit. Black suffering and death, yet again, is spun into commercial gold.

The premise of Empire revolves around Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, in his usual mode of unintentional Brechtian acting), rapper turned music label head, who has just been given a fatal medical diagnosis, and deliberately sets into motion a war of succession among his three sons. His plans are upended by the unexpected release from prison of his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson in a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing role), who took the fall for the drug deal that gave Lucious his original start-up capital, and has come back for her dues. This is the kind of over-the-top material is catnip for a director like Daniels. If it therefore invites filing under “guilty pleasure” for the rest of us, the inclusion of a gay character among the principle cast remains a novel enough premise to keep queer viewers skeptically engaged.

Lucious’ gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is what the mainstream press would like to call “non-stereotypical,” and what a more critical queer studies vocabulary would term “homonormative.” Neither an effeminate nor a homo thug living “on the down low,” Jamal would hardly be out of place among the cast of HBO’s Looking. That he is a talented musician (portrayed by an actual singer Smollett) lends his character a timely pathos. On the one hand, his father’s homophobia keeps him out of the spotlight that would otherwise seem to be his birthright. On the other, being out of spotlight spares him the fate of black masculine hypervisibility that his straight brother Hakeem seems consigned to. Homophobia forces him to the margins, but that is where the music is.

Black suffering is also at the center of a later dramatic scene, this one from Jamal’s childhood when the family still lived in the ghetto. In flashback, we see a thuggish Lucious dump Jamal in a trash can for daring to dress up his mother’s pumps and headscarf. Based on an experience from Daniels’ own childhood, this trauma is replayed over a scene of the now-adult Jamal performing “Good Enough,” a plaintive ballad addressed to his punishing superego, the father figure who will never be proud of him no matter how hard he tries. As his mother Cookie watches in the wings, Jamal stages the drama of “the best little boy in the world,” the angst of the black queer son whose overachievement serves as compensation for the paternal love he will never receive.

Can upwardly-mobile black queer sons and daughters like Jamal escape this “good enough” life? That is the unasked question behind this scene of black homonormative striving. The Lyons are, after all, remarkably functional as a kinship unit, despite all the melodramatic stigma of prison, crime, violence, and addiction that surround them. The incongruity of soapy drama like this lies in the fantasy we cling to as an audience that even people as rich, talented, and attractive as Jamal and his family nevertheless face the same demons as we do. The good life is really just the never good enough life.

Wouldn’t Jamal be happier without his father’s approval, without celebrity, without a corporation to run? What if the one thing he can’t have, full social acceptance, is the last thing he actually needs?

Works mentioned

Theodor Adorno, “On Jazz” in Essays on Music Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2002.

Transparent (2014): The Highs, the Lows, The Inbetweens

7 Jan 140924143230-amazon-transparent-show-620xa

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I was willing to go with the non-trans casting of the excellent Jeffrey Tambor for the role of the father who comes out to his children as a woman later in life. I was willing to overlook the stereotypes of lesbians as domestic snuggle bunnies blissed out on home improvement and less interested in hardcore fucking; I was even willing to tolerate the dweeby brother who, despite being a deeply irritating human being, manages to pick up one interesting lady after another. But the final straw for me, late one night, deep into a binge watching cycle of Transparent, was when Dale, a transman, struggles to get his sex toy out of its child proof packaging in anticipation of hot sex with his fem date, Ali, and then drops his dildo on the floor. In that moment, I felt my faith in the series slipping away as fast as Ali’s desire, and when she turns to leave, giving up for now on the potential of a heated and sexy exchange, turning her back on the fallen Sparkle Unicorn tool, I was ready to go with her. But, like any good binge watcher, I continued watching, being lifted by its high notes, disappointed by its low blows, and somewhat entertained by everything in between.

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220px-Solowaydirectorsphotocrop1-1Transparent, created and directed by Jill Soloway, received much acclaim for its first season. Rolling Stone credited it with “making the world safer for trans people”; Out dubbed it as the first show to properly handle not only transgenderism but also bisexuality; and, The Advocate called Transparent, simply, “great television.” Telling the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in Los Angeles that falls apart and regroups around the patriarch’s revelation of her desire to live as a woman, Transparent covers a lot of new ground for television. The acting is uniformly great in this show, and its refusal to trade only in positive images of trans people–never mind Jews, lesbians, female rabbis, and butch security guards–makes it a unique media event in the history of queer representation. In a nutshell, the show gets a lot right, but as a footnote, it also makes some rookie mistakes. Now, some four months after its release, after allowing the dust it kicked up to settle a little, let’s reassess the highs and the lows of Transparent.

The Highs

  • The Writing – “No one has ever seen me except me” (Maura). The challenge with Transparent lies in its ability to represent a specific trans experience without making it representative of all trans experience. The show manages to convey, with some subtlety, the relief of coming out, the stress of feeling exposed, the sadness of being late to the table. Maura is a multifaceted character and a uniformly talented cast backs her up.With a writing team that includes the great Ali Liebegott and a consultant team that includes Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Transparent made the wise decision to work with trans people’s own narratives rather than to cleave faithfully to Jill Soloway’s autobiographical story. Soloway’s experience with her father’s transition still forms the spine of the piece but it is well rounded out with a clutch of other stories about aging, sexual experimentation, addiction, sibling tension and so on
  • Transparent7.5The HumorFour out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” When Ali (Gaby Hoffman) explains to her siblings Josh (Jay Duplass) and Sarah (Amy Landecker) that her date for the “Trans Talent Show” is the handsome trans man across the room (played by Ian Harvie), Josh first struggles to incorporate more new information about gender flexibility and then blurts out the line of the season: “Four out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” It is a great line and like much of the humor in the show, perfectly delivered. Eschewing the sit-com laugh-line humor for a more self-deprecating style that mixes defeat and disappointment in healthy doses with wry self-awareness, Transparent actually hits a few new notes for comedy.
  • The Acting – Jeffrey Tambor really draws out the fine shading of his character and while the siblings perform their hysteria (Amy Landecker as Sarah), paranoia (Jay Duplass as Josh) and neurosis (Ali) to the tee, some of the best acting falls to the minor characters like Ian Harvie, Judith Light and Carrie Brownstein. Brownstein’s show stealing turn as Ali’s best friend in love with both Ali and embroiled sexually with her brother, was magnificent. And both Harvie and Light are totally convincing and more in their roles.tumblr_ncji0riq271r4aenjo5_500
  • The Brutally Realistic Appraisal of the Fucked Up Family: Davina to Maura: “In five years you are gonna look up and none of your family are gonna be there. Not one.” Resisting the Hollywood-ready narrative of the ever-expansive family network that bends and bows to embrace the good and the bad of its flawed members, Transparent is willing to dig into the fragility of family ties. Family, the show reveals, hangs too much upon the pathetic alibi of blood bonds and longevity and these connections, dependent as they are upon custom and routine, cannot incorporate new information well. Family, more often than not, is convenience, parasitism and laziness, a group of people stuck in hell and too idle to leave. And queer community, at least prior to the installation of gay marriage, offered one important alternative to biological bonds. One of the greatest contributions made by Transparent, indeed, lies in its willingness to expose the rotten core of American family life and offer alternatives even if they come in the form of bad sex, infidelity and addiction!

The Lows

The Writing – while mostly I loved the writing, there are numerous missteps. In one episode, for instance, Syd tells Ali she is a “vaginal learner” (huh?), “you have to stick stuff in there to see what it feels like…” And, in another, Sarah asks her ex husband, Len, whether her tits were “too overwhelming” for him. Later, in much telegraphed post-breakup sex, Len tells Sarah that, since she is now with a woman, she must be missing his cock. And so on. These interactions seem to be playing to another audience, a straight audience perhaps, an audience who often has to be instructed in what Len calls “dildo-ology” or in the variations within the category of transsexual. Who can argue with a little pedagogical push, but when push comes to shove, the show seems to orient too much to a straight audience, the one most identified with sleazebag Josh, and most invested in familial stability.

The Pathos – I am all for a little pathos. Hell, I am all for a lot of pathos especially when it is used judiciously to spring a coming out narrative out of the mine field of clichés and to place it in the all too human terrain of loss. But sometimes, Transparent divvies up and distributes the pathos in ways that make it seem like simply part of the terrain of transgenderism. Pathos, we all know, is the foundation of heterosexuality, maybe of all sexuality, but in the show, sometimes, especially in the trans-talent episode, pathos seems to be the hallmark of trans life and this despite the deep and wide and magical archive of queer performance scenes that the producers all participate in and could have drawn upon. Given the incredible contributions to art, film and performance made by Drucker and Ernst and considering the eclectic writing career of Ali Liebegott, there is just no reason that the drag show had to be so bad, so sad, so pitiful.

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The Trans Sex Scene

And so, we circle back around to the Sparkle Unicorn in the room, the dildo on the floor, the trans sex scene that never happened. Ian Harvie has answered questions about this scene in various interviews and has insisted, rightly, that the scene must be considered in context. The scene is intercut with a failed sexual interaction between Josh and the female rabbi, Raquel and so the theme of the episode is detumescence. This is all well and good but while Josh simply fails to get it up, Dale cannot handle his dildo, and the banter between Ali and Dale leading up to the failed sex scene is kind of cringe worthy. The “shave-your-pussy” scene just seems like one major buzz kill.

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So, in between the highs, the lows and the lousy, there is much to admire in this new series and while I am still waiting for a dildo-sex scene to rival the one that Kim Peirce shot for The L Word back in 2006, I have faith that the Sparkle Unicorn will survive its fall from grace and return to offer a real lesson in sex, gender creativity and magic.

Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

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I was re-watching 30 Rock the other day (yeah, right after I finished my Monty Python marathon) and I came across the episode where Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, is accused of “hating women.” Liz Lemon is outraged, and reminds her crew that their last episode was all about women – cut to Jenna as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane because “oh no! my period.” And then cut to Jenna as Hilary Clinton messing up a press conference because “my period!” Liz Lemon explains: “that was an ironic appropriation of…oh, I don’t know anymore.” The skit continues with another humorous twist of the screw with which I won’t bore/amuse you but perhaps this is a good place to start: we often don’t know anymore, when something is an ironic appropriation of…and when it is just more of the same.

The responses to my recent Bully Bloggers piece “You’re Triggering Me: The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” have pretty much polarized people (at least those who have responded publicly) into camps that break along that kind of division – people who hear humor and irony in the piece and are in favor of “ironic appropriations,” and people who think that the humor is just fancy dressing for odious and hurtful dismissals of real experiences of harm and pain. Obviously the wide range of responses to the post suggests the virality of the topic in the first place and perhaps justifies my attempts to make an intervention. And obviously I wrote a polemic so I cannot claim now to be surprised when the polemic polarizes!

But I was surprised by some mis-readings and dismayed by some of the more vicious responses, and I was very sorry, in particular, that some of my characterizations smacked of a dismissal of disability rights claims or discourse.

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

  • Andrea Smith’s wise “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivized Healing” (not a direct response to me at all) where she asks: “How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma?”
  •  Another excellent post that did directly respond to mine, and critiqued it, came from Natalia Cecire who offers that I am missing the way that neoliberalism also counsels us to “suck it up” in relation to harm and pain that we may feel. And she usefully points to the ways that the modes of expression that I critique are often associated with the feminine and therefore draw out a sexist response that she associated with my article. Finally, Cecire proposes that it is ridiculous to point to and intensify a generational split, one that older people have in many ways created and exploited and then blame it on a younger generation and all while accusing people of lacking a sense of humor. Fair enough.
  • Julia Serano, the author of the fabulous Whipping Girl, a book I regularly teach, calls my blog a “kitchen sink” piece and reminds us that activism can be messy and difficult but that the quarrels over language and feelings are ultimately worth the effort. She also memorializes her dead parrot while trigger warning the memorialization and joking about her own trigger warning. And she has funny inter titles, and is always worth a read, even if she is ripping you a new one!whipping_girl
  • Finally, Valéria Souza’s excellent blog on “Triggernometry” charts the history of some of these debates and she situates triggering as an almost necessary part of learning and something that we cannot shield ourselves from but that we should not ignore either.
  • You can also read other great posts by Brandy Daniels, and Matthew Nelson.

In response, and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now:

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    1. I apologize to all those offended by my article. And to those who were not offended, it was not for lack of trying (joke).
    2. In trying to express frustration with some of the ways in which we engage each other in public around safe space, trigger warnings and appellations/pronouns, I realize that I made a straw person out of the environmentally sensitive people who object to perfume in public spaces. On this point, I have been re-reading Anna Mollow’s excellent article “No Safe Place” in Women Studies Quarterly (2011). My point was not to critique people who have environmental allergies  but to question how we make room for each other, or don’t, how we interact in public spaces and how important it is to find ways to communicate our needs without shouting each other down. This is something that I believe disability rights groups have done gracefully  and not simply by yelling at others in spaces fouled up by toxic odors. It may also be a good time to return to Todd Haynes brilliant film, Safe (1995), which managed to situate environmental illness not as a metaphor but as a part of an emergent landscape of differentiated vulnerability to all kinds of social and chemical toxicity. safe
    3. Generational conflict is an important topic. In my book, In a Queer Time and Place back in 2005, I actually wrote about the potential for emergent queer youth groups to pit old and young against each other in queer communities that were not actually organized along generational lines. This kind of conflict, I said then, is organized within Oedipal structures that make one generation see the other as their rivals/replacement. Consequently, these Oedipal structures substitute for other more queer, fluid and entwined relations between young and old, relations moreover that were often intimate and that, in the past, allowed for knowledge (prior to the internet) to be passed on from one generation to another. I still think that some of the impact of queer youth groups comes in the form of Oedipal conflict and I am committed to thinking with others about how to communicate, exchange and theorize beyond that Oedipal frame. I reproduced the framework in my essay for sure, but that is an inevitable consequence of struggling over a term like “tranny” that many people in their 40’s and 50’s use and other younger people often detest.Emperor-Penguins
    4. After reading through many responses to my original piece, I also agree that “censorship” might be too strong a word for the work that trigger warnings do, but censorship can mean not simply preventing someone from speaking but also insisting on what they say when they do speak. Trigger warnings originated in more local contexts and certainly warrant more conversation as and when they move from those contexts to public discourse. On this front, we might want to think about the provincial nature of these trigger warning/safe space debates and their specificity within North America – as several people pointed out in comments to my original blog, perhaps it is worth considering how American the demand for and expectation of safe space really is and whether we should dialogue about the centrality of injury to political claims made here in the US as opposed to elsewhere. But also we might consider how demands for safety in the US all too often come at the expense of others within a security regime.
    5. Julia Serano’s parrot is an important reminder of the stakes in these debates. Serano suggests that while she did lose her parrot in a way that was sad for her, she would not claim “that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But,” she continues, “do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing.” I can very well understand that, no one wants their feelings dismissed but we should not confuse sad feelings with uncontrollable grief and so, I want to validate Julia’s feelings about her pet, Coby, and I want to propose that if I was at a play or performance where someone’s parrot became an ex-parrot and it was part of a humorous sketch about our attachment to animals, we should not have to have a town hall meeting about the performance later on account of the fact that it was disrespectful to those who have suffered the loss of said avian companions…if you catch my drift.monty_python_dead_parrot_sketch_by_seekerarmada-d5muzjm
    6. And if you don’t, no worries, to follow in Julia Serano’s footsteps, I will now be known as Whipping Boy or Jock Halberslam or, as my favorite tweet put it, “ the sports dad of queer theory.” Or we could all move on and work harder to understand each other, to trust each other and to believe that even if we cannot shield each other from harm, we can at least make the odd dead parrot joke in good humor and with impunity.67Z94Svt



You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma

5 Jul your_trigger_warnings_are_triggering_me_by_meiharu-d5j2mey

by Jack Halberstam

I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

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Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can have eggs, bacon and spam; spam, eggs, spam and sausage; or spam, spam, spam and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And, humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.

feminist_humor_fbDebates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.

 

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At this point, we should recall the “four Yorkshire men” skit from Monty Python where the four old friends reminisce about their deprived childhoods – one says “we used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house…” the next counters with “house!? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in a room…” And the third jumps in with: “room? You were lucky to have a room, we used to have to live in a corridor.” The fourth now completes the cycle: “A corridor! We dreamed of living in a corridor!” These hardship competitions, but without the humor, are set pieces among the triggered generation and indeed, I rarely go to a conference, festival or gathering anymore without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere. And as people “call each other out” to a chorus of finger snapping, we seem to be rapidly losing all sense of perspective and instead of building alliances, we are dismantling hard fought for coalitions.

Starsearch

 

Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! In The Life of Brian, Brian finally refuses to participate in the anti-Semitism that causes his mother to call him a “roman.” In a brave “coming out” speech, he says: “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!

And now for something completely different…The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.

trannyshack_b

As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.

your_trigger_warnings_are_triggering_me_by_meiharu-d5j2mey

Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.

k5715Fifteen to twenty years ago, books like Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995) and Anna Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (2001) asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.

LGBT_teens

 

What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.” However, as Christina978-0-8223-5470-3_pr
Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary award winning book, Safe Space: Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, shows, the safe space agenda has worked in tandem with urban initiatives to increase the policing of poor neighborhoods and the gentrification of others. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence traces the development of LGBT politics in the US from 1965-2005 and explains how LGBT activism was transformed from a multi-racial coalitional grassroots movement with strong ties to anti-poverty groups and anti-racism organizations to a mainstream, anti-violence movement with aspirations for state recognition.

And, as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

Is this the way the world ends? When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness.

I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities. Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence. Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become. Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns. It is time to move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous (see Preciado’s Bully Bloggers post on anonymity in relation to the Zapatistas). In the words of José Muñoz, “we have never been queer.” In the words of a great knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we are now no longer the Knights who say Ni, we are now the Knights who say “Ekki-ekki-ekki-ekki-PTANG. Zoom-Boing, z’nourrwringmm.”

i.chzbgr

 

GAME OF THRONES: THE QUEER SEASON by JACK HALBERSTAM (HOUSE OF NEMO)

8 Apr
Live by the sword and die by the sword

Live by the sword and die by the sword

Every couple of seasons, like warriors of an ancient cult or like the antagonists in Games of Thrones, scholars arm themselves for battle over the ownership of the term “queer.” These battles have pitted historians against literary critics, empiricism against abstract theory, those with investments in the normative against those with investments in resistance; Foucaultians against Deleuzians, boys against girls, gender queers against cis-genders, people who watch Project Runway versus people who watch women’s tennis, Broadway musical lovers against performance art fans, people who want the freedom to marry against people who want freedom from marriage, pet lovers versus pet haters and so on. It seems to be a queer rite, in addition, to claim that, queer is over! Or, no, it has just begun! We might also hear that: it has not yet arrived; it will never arrive; it would not be queer if it did arrive; it has not been queer and so never was here and cannot therefore be over; it will never be over; it cannot be over nor can it ever begin…to be over. You get the picture.

photo_17522_wide_largeJust last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a perennial warrior, Michael Warner (House of Queer Publics), took stock of the state of queer theory on the occasion of the ending of Duke’s famed Series Q and used Jasbir Puar’s work to signal “queer theory’s ambivalence about itself. ” While he accepted the ambivalence as part of a sign of the vibrancy of the field, Warner still took time to land a few well-placed jabs at a critical queer theory that had, according to his calculations, gone beyond ambivalence and that reveled in a “queerer-than-thou competitiveness” while investing in “postures of righteous purity.” Such a model of queer theory could be found, he claimed, in a special 2006 issue of Social Text titled “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” This special issue, edited by myself, fellow Bully Blogger José Esteban Muñoz, and David Eng, was itself an attempt to make a survey of the field, and its mission was to highlight new work in queer theory—by Martin Manalansan, Gayatri Gopinath, Jasbir Puar, Hiram Perez and others of the House of Poco Queers—that saw the intersections of race and sexuality to be axiomatic rather than marginal to another larger narrative centered on the sexual identity practices of white males. Such a project, for Warner, was evidence of a whiny competitiveness and perhaps indicated, as far as he was concerned, that queer studies might be over.

Game-of-Thrones-Infographic-Houses-OnlyAnd so it goes, like an episode of the fantasy HBO series Game of Thrones, there are more battles between more houses than the human brain can keep track of! This house sets up against that house, old feuds carry over into new feuds, battles are won and lost and, to quote a Game Of Thones saying, “what is dead can never die.” While Game of Thrones is a remarkable study of power, sovereignty, territoriality, terror, kinship, sex and violence, it also offers a close reading of fantasy and desire in a possibly medieval but at any rate distant historical time. While the action, the political machinations, the sexual intrigue and the multiple forms of perfidy might be transhistorical, the success of the series actually hinges upon its ability to render the past in all, or at least some, of its pastness. The question of what constitutes the past, what relation it has to the present and how it can be read from a historical remove is the subject of one of the most recent skirmishes between queer theory households and it merits a closer look if only so that we can get back to the queerness of Game of Thrones, having settled some thorny historical questions about anachronism, teleology, chronology and genealogy.

In January 2013 issue of PMLA, Valerie Traub, queen of the House of English Studies at Michigan in Game of Thrones speak, takes aim at the “new unhistoricism in Queer Studies.” Traub, who has not, in her earlier work, ever been mistaken to my knowledge for a Marxist (House of UMass Amherst), begins her polemic with a familiar phrase: “Since around 2005 a specter has haunted the field in which I work: the specter of teleology” (21). We all know of the mythical creatures in Game of Thrones that lie beyond the wall and scuttle in and out of the kingdoms creating fear and mischief. But Traub is not worrying about what lies beyond the walls of her kingdom; rather, she is casting her own brand of historical scholarship and that by her merry band of characters, many located in Michiganlandia, as the specter, that, like communism in the mid-nineteenth century, apparently haunts queer studies.

In a weird twist that places teleological thinking—or the belief that the past can be read as an inevitable drift towards a fixed endpoint in the present—in the position of the radical threat offered by communism, Traub raises her flag for genealogy, periodization, chronology and the work of David Halperin. traub-halperin_gay_shameShe dedicates her essay to Halperin and she defends his genealogical historical methodology from the hoards at the gate that come to “undo” his “history of homosexuality.” Along the way to mounting this defense, Traub also implicitly argues, as other queer houses have recently (the House of Anti-Anti-Normativity for example –see the bullyblogger account of their recent MLA panel), that we need to return to some key foundational texts by David Halperin but also by others such as George Chauncey, Steve Epstein and Janet Halley in order to counter this “unhistoricism” with empirical research, real, authentic scholarship, in other words, grounded in proper disciplinary locations with appropriate methodologies and canonical archives of evidence. Thus, using a neo-liberal logic by which the hegemonic (teleological historicism) characterizes itself as the marginalized and outlawed, Traub allows her enterprise of historicizing to be cast as an upstart methodology which uses radical methods to bring down the prevailing order. In fact, the historical methods she defends are far from either radical or Marxist (although Marxism does have a teleological spin to it), far from a specter that is haunting anything, her periodized historical narratives, with their investments in normative temporalities, disciplinary regulation, continuity and destinations, constitute a castle on the hill, the manor house, the oldest and most royal house of all. Traub pretends to be the rebel at the gate but in actuality she is sitting safely and warmly inside, on the throne, and at the very heart of power.

How Soon Is...

How Soon Is…

Traub, reasonably enough, wants in this article to undo some of the logics that have cast two houses of queer history at odds when she thinks that they may potentially share some projects: “My aim then,” she writes even as she lifts her crossbow, “is to advance a more precise collective dialogue on the unique affordances of different methods for negotiating the complex links among sexuality, temporality, and history making” (23). A noble aim, we might add, but one that nonetheless, for all of its tone of moderation, takes no prisoners. The main targets of Traub’s “aim” indeed are Carla Freccero (House of Mid Century Modern), Jonathan Goldberg (House of Sedgwick) and Madhavi Menon (House of Queers Off Color but also House of Edelman). Traub also throws Carolyn Dinshaw (House of Queer Medieval and House of NYU) under the bus charging that while all of these scholars do interesting work on temporality, “none of these scholars set themselves the task of writing a historical account that traversed large expanses of time” (26).

And this gets to the heart of Traub’s critique – the House of Unhistoricism, according to Traub, challenges periodization and genealogical history but itself remains bound to one, or in a few instances two, time frames making it impossible for this work to track either changes or continuities across time. Ultimately, Traub seems to be saying, the anti-teleological queer histories are too invested in deconstructive readings (“readings, however, are not the same thing as history” [30]), too quick to dismiss empirical research and periodization, wedded foolishly to “analogical thinking” and “associational reasoning” (which works through presumption, according to her, rather than argumentation), and too critical of the tools of the trade (chronology and periodization). Once they have offered their readings, undone teleologies, made the present strange and the past multiplicitous, rejected periodization and sequence in favor of “multitemporality, nonidentity and noncorrespondence of the early modern” (Traub’s characterization of Goldberg), Traub offers, these scholars are left with a murky understanding of history under a tarnished banner of queer critique that has become so “free-floating” and “mobile” as to mean everything and nothing. Traub clearly feels that the House of Unhistoricism has declared war on the House of History and she charges that they have “demeaned the disciplinary methods employed to investigate historical continuity,” charged historians with “normalization,” and disqualified “other ways of engaging with the past” (35).

In past skirmishes between queer houses as much as in this one, a name is used over and over to guarantee the honorable intent and rhetorical superiority of one house over another: that name, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is used here by Traub both to signify a critique of genealogy that she rejects and to indicate a “generative legacy” to which she paradigm-shift-cartoontethers her steed. Sedgwick, she tells us early on, had critiqued Lord Halperin (House of Homosexuality and House of Joan Crawford) for investing in a Foucaultian model of genealogical thinking that placed too much emphasis on the notion of the clean break, or the Great Paradigm Shift. Sedgwick, in her emphasis on the coexistence of different models of sexuality, obviously leans more to the house of Unhistoricism than that of Historicism. But because Sedgwick is such a powerful player in the Game of Thrones, she cannot so easily be ceded to the other side. And so, Traub both acknowledges the critique of Halperin in Sedgwick and yet claims that “Sedgwick did not endorse a particular form of historiography” (25) – in other words, she may have been opposed to the House of Halperin but she did not therefore stand with the House of Unhistoricism. And so the essay ends by folding Sedgwick back into the House of History and Geneaology by claiming her multiple legacies as part of this essay’s genealogical reach, and it also marries that legacy to the bounty that Lord Halperin has bestowed upon the field: “No less at stake is how this debate bears upon David Halperin’s evolving contributions to queer theory and queer history” (36). While the House of Unhistoricism is more interested in a haptic history made up of anonymous figures brushing up against emergent categories of being, the House of Traub would trace a line of kings and queens and find their true and authentic bloodlines in order to make sure that at any given moment, the right person is on the throne.

Jay-Z-Kanye-West-Watch-the-Throne-Behind-the-ScenesBut, as Jay Z and Kanye remind us in their joint album, you always have to “Watch the Throne” because no king/queen is safe, no house is secure, no wealth lasts, no love is past, no success is sure, no church in the wild and the wild things are always just outside the door. The House of Michigan can hold onto History with a capital H; it can have disciplinarity, chronology and sequence; it can misspell the names of its postcolonial critics (footnote #12) and still make a claim on accuracy; it can cast aside the analogical thinking of the queers who come to undo history, but it cannot police what lies beyond the walls and scuttles around the edges of the House of MLA – the creatures outside the walls are the real specters haunting the field and what is dead can never die.

Jack Halberstam (House of Nemo)movies-finding-nemo-3d-poster-gallery-8

That Oceanic Feeling

12 Jul 120417-frank-ocean-1_0

by Tavia Nyong’o

19- year-old Christopher Breaux fell hard for another straight boy who couldn’t love him back, confessing his love in a car parked in front of the girlfriend’s house. But the queerest song released so far by the artist now known at Frank Ocean isn’t an ode to boy-on-boy lust, but a corrosive satire of American marriage in the era of Kim Kardashian and Newt Gingrich.

“American Wedding” has attracted the pecuniary attentions of The Eagles, whose radio staple “Hotel California” the track is based on. But the real story isn’t about the sampling wars, but about a scapegoat generation struggling to make lives amidst the crumbling infrastructure of the American dream.

Now that marriage equality has become the shorthand for considering gays fellow human beings, the exploration of what the institution actually means has become more crucial than ever. On this score, Ocean’s take down of the idealised couple form:

She said, “I’ve had a hell of a summer, so baby, don’t take this hard
But maybe we should get an annulment, before this goes way to far.”

“American Wedding” is from Ocean’s internet mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. On Channel Orange, Ocean is rarely thinking about conventional marriage, gay or straight. But he is always “thinking bout forever,” as the title of the opening track has it, and peeling back the skin of those of us who aren’t. The ass-backwardness of the Eagles’s response to Ocean’s cultural stocktaking is best captured by NCWYS in the SoundCloud comments to “American Wedding”:

If you older people think that the younger generation is out of control and doing everything incorrectly then you should absolutely love this song, but you don’t.

Aptly enough, Frank Ocean often also composes lines that run on a breath that suddenly stops short. An unforgettable one comes in “Sweet Life,” a sharply observed reverie of black-picket-fence California dreaming, when Ocean asks “So why see the world, when you got the beach?” He elongates “world” to contrast with the punched out “beach” in a way that tells us everything we need to know about Ocean’s mournful acceptance of a sun-ripened cruel optimism. That single line makes the extended parody of decadence and parental neglect on “Super Rich Kids” almost superfluous, except for the self-conscious scene setting it adds:

We’ll both be high
The help don’t stare
They just walk by
They must don’t care.

This is the way Ocean inherits the past: not by respecting tradition, or Don Henley, but by staring down the foreshortened horizons and complacent inequality that the frantic pursuit of wealth or happiness brings.

Not that he is lecturing, mind you, although Sierra Leone, sex work, global warming, and the hijab all make appearances in his rapidly expanding oeuvre. He is singing over the soundtrack of history, blunting its force with tried and true teenage tactics of insult, grandiosity, and desperate need. At 24 he isn’t quite old enough to know that he shouldn’t care, which is why he can gloat over “expensive news” on a pricey widescreen one moment, insist “my TV aint HD thats too real” another. On Channel Orange television is his angel of history, a flickering window on the mounting wreckage of the past as he is blown into the future.

The future Ocean is helping shape includes but cannot be reduced to one of its key aspects: the prospect of a progressively expanded honesty about and acceptance of same sex desire. Despite his Tumblr post comparing the intensity of homolove to “being thrown for a plane,”  the theme of Channel Orange is less sexual orientation than chemical disorientation. Recreational substance abuse resurfaces in almost every song, often as a metaphor for a relationship gone wrong. Or is it the other way around? Is addiction now the core, common experience we are struggling to give sense to, turning to romantic clichés like “unrequited love” in a desperate search for a familiar language?

Frank’s oceanic feelings on Channel Orange crash in waves that obliterate distinctions between gay, bi, or straight. Some of the ostensibly straight songs, except for their pronouns, feel suspiciously same-sex. And when heterosexuality is foregrounded, it never resolves any confusions, it only produces new ones. The artistic showpiece of the album, the ten-minute long “Pyramids,” is an afrofabulation of ancient Egypt and postmodern Las Vegas, centered on a woman dressing for her job as a stripper, while her man looks on, waiting for her to “hit the strip … that keep my bills paid.” The song is drenched in delusions of the good life in a “top floor motel suite,” lateral cruising confused for the upward mobility that is now as rare as water in the American desert. Ocean has a heartfelt respect for his Afrocentric queen — “we’ll run to the future shining like diamonds in a rocky world” — but the feeling tone of “Pyramids” is closer to Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” than Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.” Monáe and Ocean share premonitions of a near future where a multicultural one percent rests at the opulent social apex, with brown, black and some beige bodies at the botttom “working at the pyramid” just like the slaves who built the original ones.

Where CNN anchor Anderson Cooper justified his belated coming out in terms of the reporter’s obligation not to get in the way of the news, Ocean knows better. At 18 he fled Hurricane Katrina for Los Angeles. But as Fred Moten might say, “I ran from it, and was still in it” pretty much sums up the black experience in America. Channel Orange starts in a similarly fucked up atmosphere — “A tornado flew around my room” — and ends with “Forrest Gump” the most oddball portrait of same-sex love since “Johnny Are You Queer?” A campy three-legged race featuring Tom Hanks’ dimwit but fleet-footed hero, “Forrest Gump” boils Hollwood sap down to a lubricious bump and grind:

my fingertips & my lips
they burn from the cigarettes
forrest gump
you run my mind boy
running on my mind boy

This is dark camp, nostalgic kitsch repurposed by a generation whose thefts seemed premised on the canny awareness that anything original they create could be stolen. But don’t confuse Ocean’s approach for postmodern pastiche or retromania, despite his affection for old cars and the vocal stylings of Prince and Donnny Hathaway. On his first appearance on broadcast television, Ocean scaled the national media echo-chamber down to a backseat taxicab confessional, sharing his universal angst at a human level rarely captured by the contemporary celebrity coming out:

“Bad Religion” leaves it strictly unclear whether it his taxi-driver’s effusive Islam or his own devotion to the cult of true love that is more stunning. Confusing spirituality with a therapy designed to sand our sharp edges into shape for this world, he is awestruck in a way that has little to do, in the end, with either islamophobia or homophobia.

“Bad Religion” dances on the impossible “and” in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, the book where Freud psychoanalyzed the oceanic feeling of cosmic oneness felt by natural mystics as a form of prenatal regression. Thrown from his hometown by the unnatural calamity of antipoor and antiblack racism, Ocean is entitled to feel as bleakly about the human prospect as Freud did. That he doesn’t isn’t a sign of blinkered piety so much as a restless appetite for even the worst in himself and others. Even a curse, after all, probably couldn’t hurt him.

When Ocean greets us as “human beings spinning on blackness,” he invites us into that cab alongside him, sidling up in an undercommons of prayer and malediction, where the singular soul brushes up against the dark night of the universe. Maybe that’s why a conventional coming out, with its endless reiterations of the transparently obvious, seems beside the point. Frank Ocean isn’t like you or me; he isn’t even much like Christopher Breaux any longer.

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