Tag Archives: feminism

Lonely Planet

5 Sep

José Quiroga

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

September 1, 2018

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THE FULL CATASTROPHE

18 Aug

by Lisa Duggan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DeVos University Online Sexual Harassment Training Course

16 Aug

by Jack Halberstam

Dear Faculty:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you:

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

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

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

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

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

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Section One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should the university:

A. Fire her

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

C. Tell her to marry the victim

D. Put her on leave without pay indefinitely

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

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

Should the university:

A. Fire them both?

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

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

D. Deny them both tenure?

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

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

A. Call the police.

B. Call the army?

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

D. Contact the NYT?

E. Take out more insurance?

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

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

That’s all folks!

Justifiable Matricide: Backlashing Faludi By Jack Halberstam

19 Oct

The front page of Harper’s October 2010 issue says it all: “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide” by Susan Faludi. http://www.harpers.org/archive/2010/10/0083140

Apparently, according to Faludi, American feminism has a mother-daughter problem: daughters keep fighting with mothers, mothers keep undercutting daughters, and this, ladies and gentlemen and everyone else, is the real reason that feminism never quite gets its revolutionary interventions right! Trotting through some rather predictable and tame histories of feminism (first, second, third waves; sex wars; women’s suffrage; temperance movements; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch as founding mothers; the Miss American Beauty pageant of 1968 etc.), Susan Faludi remarkably, ends up somewhere in the vicinity of our contemporary moment and winds down to a drearily pessimistic conclusion—feminism is dead, we killed it—and punctuates this sad insight with a kind of amusing send up of yours truly, bullyblogger and professor, Jack Halberstam! Well, I have kept my weapon in its holster until now but upon receiving a few emails wondering what I thought of the Faludi piece, I thought I would respond with a bit of matricidal anger – actually, though, Faludi, though she may sound like your grandmother, is actually my age, so I guess this is sibling rivalry if one must stick to familiar metaphors…

How did I come to be the bad guy in “feminism’s ritual matricide”? Well, after drifting around various feminist venues like a NOW convention for example, Faludi ended up at a conference at the New School where both she and I were speaking. The conference, “No Longer In Exile” consisted of huge panels (sometimes with 8 or 9 speakers), a couple of on point presentations (by Ann Stoler, Nancy Fraser, Val Smith and others), and a lot of slightly random talks which failed to add up to any kind of state of the union event on feminism. Susan Faludi spoke on the mother-daughter dynamic and how it undermines feminism but I honestly cannot remember much of what she said other than that she seemed to have missed several generations of theoretical works by feminist theorists. She clearly felt no need to comment on the instability of gender norms, the precarious condition of the family itself nor upon the many challenges made to generational logics within a recent wave of queer theory on temporality. Instead, as I recall and as she does in this article, Faludi cast conflict in the mother-daughter bond as transhistorical, transcultural, universal and she situated its toxicity as the reason for internal rifts in the feminist project. She never once mentioned Freud or the Oedipal, she did not differentiate by class or race, she made no mention of queer challenges to the normativity of the family and of generational thinking. Faludi had clearly missed all the other big feminist conferences in the last few decades on the theme of generationality and she thought the mother-daughter thing was big news when in fact feminists have moved on and are more likely to speak of rhizomatic schemes of association, assemblages, ruptures, and performativity than about passing the torch of knowledge from one generation to the next, from mother to daughter on into perpetuity.

The event at which Faludi and I appeared seemed loosely organized around questions about generationality, institutionalization and activist and theoretical legacies and it celebrated some institutional milestones at the New School, many pioneered by Ann Snitow, the conference organizer, herself. Like many such events, there were good talks, bad talks, indifferent talks – there was the obvious, the painfully obvious, and that was just the social science stuff…and so when I had my turn to speak, on one of the last panels of the day, I tried to mix it up a little, try a bit of humor, try a bit of provocation, make some comments about what we had heard and make a bridge to the many young people who were in attendance but seemed bored out of their skulls.

While Faludi characterizes me as a glib twit who proposed Lady Gaga as the answer to what ails feminism, I actually had tried to show that Lady Gaga’s duet with Beyoncé in “Telephone” provides an exciting and infectious model of Sapphic sisterhood that moves beyond sentimental models of romantic friendship and references a different kind of feminism, one more in line with the imaginary bonds that animate violence in Set It Off and Thelma and Louise

While no one is proposing that there is some kind of clear feminist program for social change in the world of Gaga, activists of all stripes have looked to popular culture for inspiration and have refused facile distinctions between culture and reality. The Gaga piece of my talk was just a humorous ending to a lecture that covered changing notions of gender, evolving models of institutional relevance and argued for an improvisational feminism that kept up with the winds of political change.

Why is Faludi so insistent on beating the dead horse of Oedipal conflict? First, Faludi seems to be stuck in a pre-1990’s understanding of feminism and moreover her world is a resolutely white world of middle-class women who just want the recognition they deserve. While very few academic feminists would characterize NOW as the bastion of contemporary feminist action and definition, Faludi is committed to a reform model of feminism, to the idea of feminism as a politics built around stable definitions of (white) womanhood and as a ladies club of influence and moral dignity. The mother-daughter bond, which for her is exemplified in the dynamic between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet, allows for the gains of one age to be passed on to the next. But never does Faludi question whether the gains of white women in one era actually benefit women of color in the next, or whether the goals of white middle class women reflect anything beyond their class interests.

Faludi’s blindness to race is on display in the Harper’s article in the section where she reports on a shift in leadership at NOW while attending their annual conference. As she herself puts it, the leading candidate for president of NOW at the annual meeting she attends is a young Black woman, Latifa Lyles who is a “charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers.” Lyles’ opponent is Terry O’Neill, a fifties something old style feminist who embodies the frustrations and fears of a group of older white women who see younger feminists as ungrateful, apolitical and unresponsive to the generation who came before them. While Faludi implies that this presidential contest may have something to do with race, ultimately she seems to think that racial struggles always give way to generational rifts and when the young woman loses the election and charges that O’Neill had “recruited older Hillary Clinton turned-Sarah Palin supporters to throw the vote at the last minute,” Faludi quickly shifts the blame back onto Lyles and her supporters and implies that their lack of insight and the callous indifference to the concerns of older women had led to Lyles’ defeat.

Even though the defeat of Lyles is a filicide and not a matricide, suggesting that if generational struggle is the real problem with feminism then it goes both ways, Faludi doggedly pursues her thesis that “a generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism.” Billing me, in the article’s final section, as the butch matricidal maniac who casually dismisses early models of feminism and then blithely offers up Lady Gaga in exchange, Faludi tidily but not very convincingly wraps up her vapid take on “ritual matricide” with an apocalyptic image of an older woman sitting in the emptied conference room wondering what happened to feminism. Depicting this woman as the last living feminist at the New School and characterizing her as “knowledgeable and enthusiastic about recent developments in critical feminist theory” (which is more than one can say for Faludi), but still rendered redundant by the recent moves against gender studies at The New School, Faludi gives the misleading impression that a) there are no gender studies professors at The New School and b) that the expulsion of this lone older woman was the main chapter in a story of institutional erasure. Anyone who has read Jacqui Alexander’s excellent chapter in Pedagogies of Crossing, however, about a coalition of faculty, staff, students and security guards who led a political protest at the New School in NYC in the mid 1990’s, knows that there have long been struggles at the New School about politics, practice and theory. Jacqui Alexander was at the heart of the mobilization to protest the contradictions between the New School’s rhetoric of diversity and its practice of creating and supporting structural inequalities. The decision made by the New School not to hire Alexander as permanent faculty after employing her as an adjunct professor sparked the creation of a protest movement and allowed the protesters to make structural and historical links between the New School’s employment practices in regards to service employees, its past history of radicalism and its current failed promises of diversity. These are precisely the connections that Faludi fails to investigate, probably does not know about, probably does not want to know about and with their omission, she is able to clear the ground of all distractions from the big event of the momma-daughter fight that bloodies the daughter, slays the mother and brings all of feminism down with it.

If I hadn’t taught work by Faludi in the past and found her insights into gender often illuminating, I wouldn’t be so annoyed by the complacency and myopia of this article in Harper’s. I did try to talk to Faludi at the end of the New School conference to explain why I thought the mother-daughter conflict was a red herring but she just takes one piece of this interaction (where we discuss rumors of Lady Gaga’s hermaphroditism) and leaves the rest (where we discuss the redundancy of familial metaphors, the chaos of all generational transmission and the need for better models of both change and consistency). Mainstream feminism deserves better spokespeople than it currently has  – the Camille Paglia’s and Susan Faludi’s, the over-paid, under-experienced phalanx of elite ladies to whom the press returns again and again. Honestly, if these are the contemporary “mothers” of feminism, then matricide might be justifiable.

The Artist Is Object – Marina Abramovic at MOMA

5 Apr

By Jack Halberstam

You walk up to the second floor of MOMA and find the centerpiece of Marina Abramovicz’s retrospective – a live durational performance piece titled “The Artist is Present” featuring Abramovicz herself sitting motionless at a table across from, well, whoever decides to sit down with her. When she first performed the piece in the 1970’s, it was with her then lover and collaborator Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). But now instead of staring intently into the eyes of a trustworthy companion, Abramovicz stares down any and all comers. The day before I visited, a young woman had dressed up exactly like Abramowicz, in a long flowing blue dress, and she sat down across from the maestro in exactly the same position, determined to wait her out. The stare down lasted the whole day and the young woman, a performance artist herself, titled her piece “Anxiety of Influence.” Unlike an earlier male performance artist who had sat across from Abramovic and tried to distract her with various antics (he called his piece “The Other Artist Is Present,”) Anya Liftig’s “Anxiety of Influence” paid homage in kind rather than  trying to share the stage. See the interview with the artist here: http://bombsite.powweb.com/?p=8919

Abramovic’s works are shocking (risking death), moving (evoking tears and anger), irritating (literally in the sense of flesh rubbing on flesh as well as figuratively in the sense of different frames of reality grinding against each other), grating (as in set your teeth on edge): they are perhaps best appreciated through re-performance in the sense that it is difficult to apprehend the degree of difficulty of any given performance simply by hearing an account of it.  Many of her pieces are re-performed at MOMA for this special retrospective by students. Some hold their poses gracefully on crucifixes and against walls, others weep with effort, grimace, sweat, grin and bear it. What makes the pieces so difficult to perform and re-perform? Sometimes the source of agony is obvious: sitting naked on a saddle projected from a wall while holding a crucifix pose seems excruciating, but sitting back to back with a partner with whom one’s hair has been plaited, seems more like a study in patience than pain. And yet, it was the woman in the latter performance who was weeping and the woman in the former who looked cool and comfortable. One student re-performer lay naked under a skeleton (“Nude With Skeleton”) looking out at the gallery goers and occasionally catching someone’s eye, she too seemed composed. Was it the fact of being able to make eye contact that helped some performances feel bearable while others, a performance where you sit back to back for example, were about the shunning of contact and intimacy? Or, as in the central performance by Abramovic herself, was it the contact with another in a mode of alienated intimacy that was painful – looking but not looking, seeing but not seeing, connecting but not connecting? Abramovic is the artist of unbecoming. What is hard is the performance that discovers disconnection through an act that should be about connection.

For me, Marina Abramovicz’s work falls into a category of thought, performance and art that I call “shadow feminism.” In this genre, we find no “feminist subject” but only un-subjects who cannot speak, who refuse to speak; subjects who unravel, who refuse to cohere; subjects who refuse “being” where being has already been defined in terms of a self-activating, self-knowing, liberal subject. We find a feminism that stages a refusal to become woman and that locates this refusal deep in the heart of masochistic pain/pleasure dynamics?

With the notable exception of work by Linda Hart’s work on Fatal Women and Gayle Rubin’s early essays on S/M, power and feminism, masochism is an underused way of considering the relationship between self and other, self and technology, self and power in queer feminism. This is curious given how often performance art of the 1960’s and 1970’s presented extreme forms of self-punishment, discipline and evacuation in order to dramatize new relations between body, self and power. Freud referred to masochism as a form of femininity and as a kind of flirtation with death; masochism is in fact, he says, a byproduct of the unsuccessful repression of the death instinct to which a libidinal impulse has been attached. While the libido tends to ward off the death drive through a “will to power,” a desire for mastery and an externalization of erotic energy, sometimes, libidinal energies are given over to destabilization, unbecoming, and unraveling – this is what Leo Bersani refers to as “self-shattering,” a shadowy sexual impulse that most people would rather deny or sublimate –if taken seriously, unbecoming may have its political equivalent in an anarchic refusal of coherence and agency.

A remarkable amount of performance art—feminist and otherwise—from the 1960’s and 1970’s experimental scene explored this fertile ground of masochistic collapse. Faith Wilding’s performance piece, “Waiting,” charts the life narrative of women as a series of unfulfilled wishes, as anticipation without end and as suspended life. Chris Burden allowed himself to be shot in his performance piece “Shoot” from 1971. In 1974 in “Rhythm 0” Marina Abramovic invited her audience to use and abuse her with 72 objects she laid out on a table. Some objects could give pleasure, some inflict pain, the weapons included a gun and a single bullet. Abamovic had this to say after the performance: “The experience I learned was that…if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed…I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere.”  In 1965 at Carnegie Hall NYC, almost ten years earlier, Yoko Ono sat on a stage, fully dressed and gave her audience a pair of scissors. Yoko Ono’s nine minute long performance “Cut Piece” involves the artist sitting on stage while members of an audience come up and cut pieces of her clothing off. The act of cutting here is assigned to the audience rather than to the artist and the artist’s body becomes the canvas while the authorial gesture is dispersed across the nameless, sadistic gestures that disrobe Ono and leave her open to and unprotected from the touch of the other. The audience is mixed but as the performance unfolds, more and more men come to the stage and they become more and more aggressive about cutting her clothing until she is left, semi nude, hands over her breasts, her supposed castration, emotional discomfort, vulnerability and passivity fully on display. How can we think about femininity and feminism here in the context of masochism, gender, racialized display, spectatorship and temporality?

While many feminists from Simone de Beauvoir to Monique Wittig to Jamaica Kincaid have cast the project of “becoming woman” as one in which the woman can only be complicit in a patriarchal order, feminist theorists in general have not turned to masochism and passivity as potential alternatives to liberal formulations of womanhood. The archive of masochism that Marina Abramovic puts on display at MOMA is also an archive of shadow feminisms – feminisms rooted in pain and desire, struggle and desire, broken relationships and desire. Like some of the images in Lady Gaga’s recent video output that Tavia N’yongo and I have analyzed here on Bullybloggers, the versions of womanhood preferred by Abramovic join lack of affect to S/M scenarios, nakedness to a refusal of truth and disconnection to an anti-identitarian set of impulses. Like Gaga’s archive, Abramoviz’s performance history is shot through with violence, pleasure and nonsense making gestures. Like Gaga, Abramovic wills herself to become an object and as an object she stands in potent opposition to all of the clichéd forms of rationality that collect around embodied subjectivity. More and more, the artist is object. Here today, Gaga tomorrow.