Have a Good Time

December 30, 2011

Worlds and their subjects supposed to feel, or not

This post isn’t really about Christopher Hitchens either, or not entirely. On the recent wave of encomia to Hitchens and their necessary erasures—and the felt need to dissent from a kind of miniature Christmas effect in reverse, by saying, The death of an Iraqi does not mean less than the death of a man who defended, encouraged and discursively enabled a war that killed Iraqis in the hundreds of thousands—I don’t have anything to add to Anthony Alessandrini in Jadaliyya, or Glenn Greenwald and Aaron Bady in Salon, or, more briefly, a few tweets by @abubanda. (See also: Dani Nayyar on Christmas and being shot in Baghdad.) But I was thinking about these sentences from a post by Corey Robin, quoted by Alessandrini, titled “Yes, But”:

[T]hat people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the [Iraq] war to his other virtues—and nothing in this or my previous post should be construed as a denial of at least some of those virtues—tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.

My own “yes, but”: while I agree with most of this, honestly, I’m interested in denying some of the other virtues, or in attending to other reflections of “the culture he helped create” that are disturbing. After a few conversations with people who wanted to defend the legacy, I was trying to figure out how I’d feel even if it were possible to block out imperial war in just the way Robin calls into question (and which so many writers seem to think it is anyway): if, say, we were trying to talk abstractly about a public intellectual who was a former Marxist and a prominent atheist. More specifically, the kind of atheist who commits all energies toward a fight against religious faith that’s seen as the essential fight, because religious faith, as such, is the essential enemy. And so I was remembering some other thoughts I’d had about The Invention of Lying, a movie by one of Hitchens’s most vocal pop-cultural disciples, Ricky Gervais … which I hated maybe as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, but which I think is arguably a useful text insofar as it stages a kind of central misprision or denial at the heart of “New Atheism.”

I saw the movie more than a year ago, and I’m not going to watch the whole thing again, so my memory of it isn’t perfect. I also haven’t gotten very far looking online for the symptomatic readings that other people must have written, because most of the Google results for [“the invention of lying” + “capitalism”] only reflect that Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story was released in the same year, 2009. But what it comes down to for me is that The Invention of Lying—which, importantly, wants to be seen not just as a minor comedy but as a comedy of radical ideas—could have been called Existing Social Relations: An Apologia. Gervais plays an American citizen in an alternate world where no one lies or tells stories, where human beings “haven’t evolved” the ability to speak anything other than “the truth”—a world which is, perversely, identical to the world we know, except that on the level of day-to-day interpersonal interaction we’re meaner to each other. Gervais’s character has money trouble, because capital exists, and, early in the film, he’s talking to a bank teller and the magic moment arrives: he’s bowled over by the realization that he can tell her (and gender is not irrelevant) that there’s more in his bank account than there actually is, and that she’ll believe him, because she’ll believe anything. Suddenly the scene feels haunted by the ghost of a more subversive movie it could have come from, one that might have been written by David Graeber: the foundational lie is patriarchal (a man lies to a woman) and it is also the creation of credit; it is (by extension) debt; it is money.

At which point the movie stops thinking about money, and moves on to “comedic” scenes like one in which the newly powerful Gervais lies to another woman who can’t process lies, so as to have sex with her, and nearly does that. I remember the movie’s trailer stopping at the suggestion that he had; which would have been rape. (The movie itself celebrates him for relinquishing his power over her. In these scenes, Gervais’s conception of “the (man’s) lie” is like a perfected version of Hitchens’s famous conception of “the (man’s) joke,” the joke that the ugly but funny man tells the unfunny but beautiful woman in order to produce a state of eroticized helplessness. Not only do I think most women, non-binary folks, and men are actually funnier than Christopher Hitchens—his paeans to the “involuntary […] mirth, “shocked surprise,” and “sweet surrender of female laughter” unsettle me deeply.) Finally, after those scenes, I remember the movie shifting into a second and third act in which, as you may know even if you haven’t seen it, Gervais the liar accidentally invents religion, a “man in the sky.” The satirical target becomes the pathetic childish gullibility of anyone who believes in God. (Don’t they know better?)

And this move out of the bank and into the church—this submission to an inchoately grasped capitalist realism, so that the task becomes, not radically restructuring the world on material grounds, but rather “liberating” the world solely by getting it to stop believing in the immaterial—this move which is crucially underlain by effectively unquestioned, coercively maintained white male privilege and domination of people who are not white men—maybe I’m being irresponsible, but this feels to me like a rough but adequate sketch, if not of Christopher Hitchens’s career, then certainly of the New Atheist program of which he was one of the most visible faces.

 

Having said that, I want to talk about the grimaces.

The arrogance of Gervaisian atheism in The Invention of Lying is also what allows the movie to achieve some poignant moments in spite of itself. After I saw it with friends, one of the things we bonded in annoyance over was the boring inattention to any possible distinction between “unable to tell a lie” and “unable to stop yourself from blurting out rude shit, unprompted.” But it’s not only that: in this movie people say whatever’s on their minds, and Ricky Gervais alone, because he’s (explicitly) the future inventor of lying and (implicitly) the atheist who’s smarter and more sensitive than everyone else, is hurt by it. The people he runs into tell him that they think he’s ugly, stupid, incompetent, whatever; and, instead of reacting the way someone would react who had been raised in a world where everyone said this to everyone else all the time, he responds exactly as Ricky Gervais would respond. Even before he invents lying, we look at his face and see that he knows what lying is, because it’s what he wants from sociality. And I was reminded of this by a bad video that Grant shared on Facebook a while ago—another unfunny comedy and another failure to found an alternate reality, in this case “a world of true equality between men and women.”

[“A Feminist’s Dream Date,” from YouTube. Transcript coming soon.]

Again: beyond wanting to show one boy relating to one girl in the spirit of “true equality,” this video wants to be a document from a world of “true equality”; and it wants to convince us that such a world is undesirable. (One of the “related videos” on YouTube, when I watched it, was a clip titled “Christopher Hitchens versus Feminism,” in which Hitchens tells a stunned female TV host, “They’re called the gentler sex for a reason […] I’m here to take care of them.” Of course Hitchens insultingly misread Judith Butler in the New York Times, and presented his misreading as a critique. Of course he did.) But what this video does instead, exquisitely, is to show the kernel of malignant meaninglessness in antifeminist “chivalry.” It shows us the kind of privileged American white guy who hates feminism because he believes in chivalry (which depends on inequality); and all it can think to do is subtract chivalry from the equation, revealing that, without chivalry, the guy will treat the girl he’s dating, not as a friend, a comrade, or someone who deserves a bite of popcorn or the most basic courtesy, but rather as an effectively nonhuman object in which he has no interest. And—again—what makes the video so interesting isn’t just that he treats her this way; it’s that she, too, breaks the rules the video thinks it’s following, by knowing it, and flinching in ways that bespeak expecting something else.

Like The Invention of Lying, this is an aspiring picture of a parallel world whose laziness is betrayed by winces, glimpses of a kind of lived affective archive that could only have been accumulated in this world. Not coincidentally a world where men like Christopher Hitchens and Ricky Gervais will defend to the death their right to offend you. I’m not sure if it would be all too precise, or not precise enough, to say that these characters who wince are like Sara Ahmed’s affect aliens, “unseated by the table of happiness”—they’re more like affect ambassadors, whose half-intended role is to show us the strangeness of a new world by acting, impossibly, as our surrogates in it. And, as much as I dislike and distrust the texts they come from, in some way I welcome these figures. Heading into a new year, inside a moment that at least seems to accommodate more and more thinking in public about the new worlds that people might actually want to inhabit, I think the fact that so many of us actually are ambassadors like this—inevitably bearing the imprints or scars of the world we want to see left behind—is worth keeping in mind.

December 13, 2011

Homonationalism’s Christmas effects

[Transcript: Rick Perry strolls down a green forest path, to loud faux-Copland music, and says: “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian. But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas, or pray in school. As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion, and I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again. I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message.”]

When Rick Perry releases a campaign ad like this, we’re told, it’s little more than a sign of desperation, recognized as such by almost everyone. There are already countless parody videos. Viewers have seized on a resemblance between Perry’s jacket and the one worn by Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (a character whose desire is suffocated, whose lover is murdered, whose life is made unlivable—and, more importantly, still the universal reference point for insinuations that a man who pretends to be straight is totally gay). It’s become important to people that Perry’s video should receive more dislikes on YouTube than Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” because of course a perfect way to disparage a male American politician is to rank him visibly lower than a fifteen-year-old girl whose ambitions are agreed to be excessive. In a word, Perry’s video is seen as a failure; and not only, or not even mostly, because of its crypto-racist warnings about “Obama’s war on religion” (with the familiar hint that Obama is somehow both an atheist and a deceitful Muslim), but rather because it wants to reverse the seemingly irreversible neo/liberal consensus that “gays” should “serve openly in the military”—i.e., that queer Americans belong on the battlefield, and in front of the computers that run the drones, around the world. In this sense the ad is identified as belonging to a cultural moment that has passed.

And my reason for writing about it isn’t only to reiterate something I’ve said before, to disclose maybe the one feeling Rick Perry and I have in common, though we arrive at it from opposite corners, namely that the embrace of “gays in the military” makes both of us sad. I also want to say that the release of this video, in early December, with this constellation of key terms—

strength / faith / America / children / family / Christmas [ / gays ]

—reminds me of one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite essays by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (which I remember stopping to read aloud to myself several times, at the first encounter, because I was so in love with it). And that the link between “America,” “Christmas,” and “the gays” also turns out to have resonated with Stephen Colbert and the writers of The Colbert Report, in ways that make Sedgwick even more interesting to me. So here’s the beginning of the section titled “CHRISTMAS EFFECTS” in Sedgwick’s “Queer and Now,” first published in 1993:

What’s “queer?” Here’s one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it? —is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all—religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy—line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing?…

Since this passage is at least as accurate a description of the Christmas season as it was twenty years ago, one thing it does is to make even more obvious the absurdity of Perry’s claim that American kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas. (“You don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday”—exactly, Rick. Exactly!) Since it’s a passage from an essay by Eve Sedgwick in 1993, another thing it does is to make way for an elaboration on the idea that “queer” can signify, precisely, a tendency or a stance beautifully in opposition to everything meaning the same thing, a kind of resistance to Christmas effects, or a celebration of “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” that may constitute gender and sexual identity—but not necessarily only those.

Which still sounds utopian to me, and leaves me feeling, still, profoundly troubled at the extent to which, twenty years later, the most prominent movements for “gay rights” in America stand for an uncomplicated desired absorption into “religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy.” And I think this is why I’m fascinated less by a campaign ad that could basically have come from 1993 itself than by Stephen Colbert’s satirical response, which makes a cheerful joke out of Perry’s paleoconservative homophobia and his delusions of anti-Christian persecution by transposing the rigidly codified American rhetoric of gay equality (not a choice, born this way, just as good a soldier, get used to it) into a discussion of those who embrace “the Christmas lifestyle”…with the probably inevitable climactic tableau of two Santas (white and male—naturally!) locked in a gay kiss.

colbert

[Picture links to video. Transcript at the bottom of this post.]

Now of course I don’t begrudge these two big gay Santas their happiness! Nor do I want to be bitter about the easygoing tolerance that’s couched familiarly in Colbert’s performance of its opposite. But what strikes me is just how close the segment comes to a powerful critique of homonationalism and normative American cisgender/gay identity, seemingly without anyone realizing it.

“They don’t understand that, unlike being gay, loving Christmas is not a choice,” Colbert says. “I was attracted to Christmas at a very early age.” Surely the joke is that the audience knows that this both is and isn’t true. That “Christmas” is an utter cultural construction: dependent, yes, on certain inclinations or orientations (toward, say, gifts), but also spectacularly expanded beyond them, and shaped by history and ideology in such a way that a set of weird, even oppressive rituals and pageants of capital can come to feel impossible to think outside of (just as Sedgwick says): it couldn’t be any other way. “I didn’t totally understand it, but it got me very excited.” I hear these jokes and think, If only we could actually follow this logic through! But then, by the time Colbert gets to the image of “the Macy’s Pride Parade,” it’s as if a complete synthesis has been reached between the Christmas effect he’s describing and the movement whose language he’s jokingly using to describe it. And it isn’t really a joke. In Colbert’s speech the parade of American capitalism has swallowed the march of gay rights without missing a step, and, thus fortified, it heads in the direction of Afghanistan, to keep order, and to keep the world safe for the Christmas spirit. Everything means the same thing.

UPDATED TO ADD: I’ve been following a really helpful and important exchange in the comment section from this recent Jadaliyya article by Maya Mikdashi, which includes some remarks by Jasbir Puar that make me think a better title for this post would have been “American Homonationalism as Christmas effect” (and even that’s not sufficient, probably). I would recommend the whole conversation to anyone interested, but Puar writes:

What I appreciate very much about the article is the recognition that homonationalism is understood as part of a larger structure of neoliberal accommodationism that encompasses shifting and unstable constructions of “Others” and citizens. So as the author writes: “Homonationalism is not the end goal of a conspiratorial “gay international,” rather, it is only one aspect of the reworking of the world according to neoliberal logics that maintains not only the balance of of power between states, but also within them.” As I have been watching homonationalism become part of many different national organizing agendas against co-optation by various states, and also watching queer organizing “against” homonationalism, I am reminded that, for myself anyway in my original thinking, that homonationalism is not a position, an identity, nor even an accusation, rather it is an assemblage of state practices, transnational movements of capital, bodies and ideas, political and intellectual practices, and geopolitical relations. it is not something that one is either inside of/included or against/outside of–rather it is a structuring force of neoliberal subject formations. As such, homonationalism is not a synonym for gay racism, rather a deep critique of liberal attachments to identity and rights-based discourses that rely on identitarian formations. In Terrorist Assemblages, I do focus not only on the places/sources/events/people that homonationalism might be expected to proliferate, but also places where a resistance to state racism might actually result in forms of homonationalism–for example South Asian queer diasporic organizing. So the question becomes, for me, not so much who can or cannot be called homonationalist, or which organizing projects are or are not homonationalist, but rather how are the structural expectations for homonationalism–which the author notes is becoming hegemonic–negotiated by groups who may well want to resist such interpellation but need to articulate that resistance through the very same logics of homonationalism? How is homonationalism working/being strategically manipulated differently in different national/geopolitical contexts, and are there homonationalisms that become productively intrinsic to national liberation projects rather than national imperialist/expansionist projects? I am still very much thinking about these questions, but I appreciate the article tremendously for bringing up these difficult issues.

[The Colbert Report segment transcript.

Stephen Colbert, at his desk: Welcome back, everybody. Nation, the race for the GOP presidential nomination is far from over. Newt Gingrich may be the frontrunner now, but, by the looks of him, he might get winded if there are stairs involved. The point is, it is still anybody’s game here. Because my man Rick Perry just released a great new ad.

[A portion of the ad plays.]

Colbert: Yes…I agree…Governor Perry is right. Thanks to the gays, our children can’t openly celebrate the birth of our savior in school—and yet these gays in the military can openly celebrate their favorite holiday: being away from their family risking their lives in Afghanistan. Well I for one am offended by those who would condemn the Christmas lifestyle. They don’t understand that unlike being gay, loving Christmas is not a choice. I was attracted to Christmas at a very early age. I didn’t totally understand it, but it got me very excited. I remember looking at a present and just aching for it. I saw a gingerbread man and I wanted him in my mouth. Folks, it wasn’t until I moved to New York and saw the Macy’s Pride Parade that I had the courage to throw on my thigh-high candy-cane stockings and proudly chant, “We’re here; we like reindeer; get used to it.” I just pray for a day when Kringle-Americans feel free to ‘don we now our gay apparel.’ Well, nation, like Rick Perry, around here we are not ashamed of who we are. We at the Report want the world to know just how much we truly love Christmas. Boys, get out here!

[Two men dressed as Santa Claus appear onstage.]

Colbert: Look at that! Not one Santa’s helper, but two. All right, fellas, are you ready to get your sleigh bells jinglin’?

Santa: Oh, certainly.

Colbert: Jimmy, drop the mistletoe.

[Mistletroe drops from the ceiling. The two Santas embrace, funky music plays and the audience cheers.]

Colbert: Oh yeah. Somebody’s sugarplums are dancin’. In your face, gays! Governor Perry, you’re welcome. We’ll be right back.]

January 21, 2011

Favorite movies (about the humanities?) of 2010, with digressions on resistance to affect and on leaving grad school

I guess I’m really not alone in finding that 2010 was, even more than usual, a year when I didn’t see a lot of movies, and when most of the movies I did see I had mixed to negative feelings about.  I never worked up the enthusiasm to get to many of the big releases I was told I should like. About The Social Network—I know it wasn’t Lisa Nakamura’s intention, but this is the kind of great critical paragraph that tends to kill the last trace of interest I might have had in seeing a film that felt seriously overrated even from a distance.  About True Grit—maybe it wasn’t Evan Calder Williams’s intention either, but this is the kind of great critical post that makes me decide I might see it after all.  And I’m sure I’ll get to Black Swan eventually, mostly because Kate Bornstein praised it on Twitter and Eileen Myles praised it on Facebook, and in spite of the way its 15-second YouTube ads make me take off my headphones and go for some deep breaths.

Some of the mixed feelings: The Fighter really does have nice performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Mark Wahlberg, and a sound design that I loved; but as a movie about class in America I think it’s deeply bizarre, in the sense that for most of its running time I could see it only as a real-life story shaped into the story of how, if you happen to be as beautiful and charismatic as Mark Wahlberg, your future depends on removing yourself from the unforgivably trashy, vulgar, non-movie-star folks with horrible hair who are your family.  (Once you do, it gets better! Or maybe you’ll realize in the end that your brother is OK, and maybe your mother too, but as for the indistinguishable mass of nagging bodies constituted by your sisters, forget it.)  Atom Egoyan’s Chloë (released in 2009 in Canada, in 2010 in the U.S.) was a movie with an even more emphatic message, which was that lesbian sex workers are FUCKING CRAZY AND HAVE COME TO DESTROY YR STABLE HETERO UNION FOR NO REASON, RUN: I think it has the sketchy distinction of coming closer than any film I can remember to a full-fledged presentation of female sinthomosexuality? And I had fun at Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but I couldn’t quite share Steven Shaviro’s enthusiasm for it, partly because its sensibility struck me not just as unrelievedly white (Shaviro’s phrase), but as unrelievedly white and male in some particularly troubling ways—I appreciated Mike Barthel’s post explaining departures from the original comic in that respect.  (With Nakamura’s paragraph still in mind, you could even say it was a conspicuously bad year for Asian girls in American movies about white boys and their computers.)  My reaction to Tangled is here.

Two of my favorites were both studies of prison and punishment, again actually released in their countries of origin in 2009: Un prophète and Vincere.  Not that I saw many documentaries, but I liked Tamra Davis’s Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child a lot better than its title.  Three of the performances I valued most were Greta Gerwig’s, Ben Stiller’s, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s in Greenberg—which I almost didn’t see, because I was basically unthrilled by a trailer that seemed to promise not much more than a celebration of the world’s stretching to accommodate a privileged person (no indication of his mental illness) who wanted to “do nothing for a while.” (This was a reaction of guilty disavowal, because it hit close to home.  But I think maybe the trailer for Greenberg was a trailer for the kind of movie Roger Greenberg would like to see about himself, and Greenberg isn’t that movie, one good illustration of the fact being that it gives two awesome actresses so much space for thoughts and gestures that go way beyond Roger Greenberg.  Call my standards low, but I also really appreciated seeing a movie that was just so nonchalant about presenting, first, a woman whose uncertainty about what she’s doing in the world doesn’t prevent her from making reproductive decisions that are in no way demonized or Douthatized; and, second, a protagonist who in his constant letter-writing may look like a kind of one-man L.A. Bouvard and Pécuchet, but who ultimately stands revealed as someone who tried successfully to get the New York Times to care more about Pakistan.  I started to wonder whether with one line of dialogue the movie had conjured up its own counterpublic—audience members whose main reaction was, What a fantasy.  They’ve never printed any of my letters on Pakistan…)

My favorite American movie was Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways—not perfect, and Susie Bright’s lament on its insufficient attention to “the Underground Dyke Punk Groupie Slut culture that stretched from the San Fernando Valley to the bowels of Orange County” is one I take quite seriously … but the use of multiple songs from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, as one way of hinting at how badly the glam/punk scene of that time and place needed a real gender revolution, was the kind of of touch that definitely worked for me, and of which there were lots.  Plus, it looked to me like the most satisfying realization yet of Kristen Stewart’s invaluable negativity, which Voyou has been posting excellent things about—because, here, we get to watch that negativity become confidently other-directed, the classical punk rerouting, a move out through Bella Swan’s aphasia and into “I’m-a-fuckin’-wild-thing” and new political possibilities.  I’m sure it helps that I’ve been reading Sara Marcus’s truly amazing book Girls to the Front, and remembering Joan Jett’s friendship later in life with Kathleen Hanna and her encouragement for projects like Bikini Kill, and being reminded that the history of riot grrrl, is, in part, the history of women who were tired of hearing that they should let themselves be eclipsed by Edward fuckin’ Cullen.

So there were bright spots.  But I’m pretty sure this was a year in which I got more out of things I watched online than from trips to the theater to see feature-length, narrative-driven movies.  Because I’m aware this is true to varying degrees for a whole lot of people, I won’t bore anyone with a long list of my favorite YouTube clips of 2010, which is what I was thinking of doing at first.  Instead I’ll briefly talk about two videos that meant a lot to me last year, that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while but haven’t really been able to process well enough to write about them, and that are related to each other, among other ways, in being about robots and in not being about robots.

Last year there were many music videos I liked, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say my favorite was Janelle Monáe’s self-described “emotion picture” for “Cold War,” directed by Wendy Morgan.  The basic act of performing a song with these lyrics and this title, taking the name of a conflict which everyone recognizes as “dead” and which still serves as the metoynm for history as such; and telling all comers that it isn’t over, it’s still proceeding, only it’s gone further underground and gotten colder; it’s a struggle that doesn’t afford neutrality, even if it’s harder than ever to be sure what you’re fighting for, but you have to try to know: I think this is a pop gesture whose significance shouldn’t be underestimated.  Like the 2008 short film based around “Many Moons,” “Cold War” almost works as a concentration of the whole ArchAndroid album, in its effective ability to make itself felt at once as a document from the year 2719 and as an inevitably but spectacularly failed exorcism of the long 20th century—except this time it’s played out in real time, over one face, captured and transformed by what Monáe would describe on Twitter as “an uncontrollable emotion.”  And while I appreciated learning from Anwyn at Popular Demand and others about the connection to Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2U,” I’m even more interested in the affiliation with two more recent texts, namely Grace Jones’s and Nick Hooker’s “Corporate Cannibal” video from 2008 (a link Erik Steinskog makes here), and Chris Crocker’s “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE” announcement from 2007.

These arguably stand at and for the two affective poles between which “Cold War” defines itself in oscillation.  The first is an emotion/less picture in which, as Steven Shaviro notes, Grace Jones fearlessly transfigures her upper body into a “chilly and affectless object-machine,” digitally distorted and modulated in order to ventriloquize the cold, infinitely mutable, vampiric-robotic charge of Capital in 21st-century corporate culture.  These modulations are echoed visually in “Cold War” at moments when the camera’s focus on Monáe’s face suddenly blurs, while its ever-present readout in the lower-right-hand corner ticks away pristinely, and while Monáe’s eyes widen and her face tilts upward and back as if in terrified recognition of the cold world that both her lyrics and Jones’s have described.  (Two further modes of musical engagement with capitalist realism, which maybe aren’t so different from each other: Jones speaks as the “I” of Capital, addressing a “you” who can only ever be devoured alive—the end of history confirmed, but as a nightmare from which there’s no way out; and even if Monáe interpellates the viewer as a historical subject who retains some theoretical capacity for resistance, her “Do you know what you’re fighting for? / Do you, do you?” is less hopeful than it is melancholic, vexed, almost undecidable.  Still—at least queries are being made, and the possibility of struggle is there.)  And the posthuman/Afrofuturist poetics of Grace Jones’s whole career (thoughtfully analyzed in the same post by Shaviro) resonate in the unifying conceit of The ArchAndroid, which is that “Cold War” and all the other songs are the work of an asylum inmate named Janelle Monáe who has been kidnapped from the future, sent to the present, and replaced, “back in the year 2719,” with an android named Cindi Mayweather, who might herself be the savior sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the Great Divide.  (“Is the American government tied to the Great Divide?”  Seriously, if you haven’t already, just listen to the album.)

If this is an android we’re watching, though, she’s an android who starts to cry uncontrollably, in what the opening title assures us is an unfiltered “Take 1,” while the sonic world that she’s trying to keep up with continues on without her.  (War is not over if you, as an individual, want it.)  Which leads me to my second companion text—a straight shot of e-‘mo/tion in which Chris Crocker freaked everybody the fuck out, four years ago, by focusing on one of the most prominent faces and victims of 21st-century corporate culture’s entertainment industry, and making the radically unsettling gesture of considering her as a person.  Chris knew what he was fighting for, and it was, by extension, the right of young women to show their vulnerability in public without being humiliated and harassed, which is something.  That his video then became an international joke about the horror of young androgynous people showing their vulnerability in public (and provoked an unending tide of YouTube comments along the lines of, “I have no problem with gay people, but this fag is gross”) only proved his point.  And if “Cold War” inspires unease in anyone, it’s likely to be unease of a related (though crucially nonidentical) kind: wait, are they faking it?  Isn’t this all really narcissistic?  Isn’t there something suspect about deliberately giving yourself over to an emotion in public that way?  (And who cares about Britney Spears, and isn’t the Cold War over?)

These concerns are most revealingly (and infuriatingly) voiced by someone like Larry Ryan, writing for the Independent. Ryan has no problem with the “Cold War” video itself, understand, because Monáe is “poised” (!) and because he can tell that the tear running down her cheek is just an artful homage to Sinéad O’Connor.  It’s Monáe’s revelation on Twitter that these were actually real feelings, worth talking about, that gets under his skin: quoting her tweet about the uncontrollable emotion, and her exchanges with fans who told her that they had shared that emotion, that it had been important to them, and that they’d felt a connection with her that had changed their lives, Ryan declares that “Janelle Monáe has fallen off her tightrope” and that the whole online conversation amounts to a “hideously lame display of bogus pyschobabble.”  He’s not done, either: after this weird failure to consider what Monáe might be doing as an artist (“Tightrope” does come right on the heels of “Cold War” on the album, like the quenching of a thirst, and the first words she sings in “Tightrope” are “I’ll take your pain away,” and just maybe the first song is evoking an environment and the next song is making some suggestions about managing affect and surviving within it, and she had an interesting reason for reversing the order of the music video releases, because sometimes nothing and no one will come to take your pain away) … the article then offers the unbelievable spectacle (or maybe not so unbelievable) of a white man telling a black woman, in print, that she shouldn’t be having or expressing the feelings she’s had and expressed, because it makes her look too much like Oprah and Michael Jackson.  The lines in “Cold War” that provoke Monáe’s tears and change the video’s course, the most exquisite lines in anything I heard or read or saw in 2010, are: “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me / There’s nothing wrong with me / And it hurts my heart.”  Those are words sung by a woman of color, calling out a system of norms in which we all participate, and which, at this moment, a music journalist confirms by participating in it enthusiastically.  (Maybe you could even say that this point, about “poise” and how certain bodies are especially policed to conform to it, is one that Chris Crocker picked up on and tried to explore in some problematic videos, post-“LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE,” where he adopted the stereotyped speech and mannerisms of urban black femininity.)

One of the messages a fan sent to Janelle Monáe, and that Larry Ryan mocked, read: “I feel human again.”  I wouldn’t be one to say this can never be problematized, or thought more about.  I’d only say that it isn’t advisable, it doesn’t work, to problematize it from a perspective according to which feeling, or even feeling human, is inherently laughable.  Because that leads to bad criticism; and it leads to bad art, like Seth Green’s fucking awful “Leave Chris Crocker Alone” video; and I don’t think you actually have to stretch it too far before you reach the sadistic limit point of Glenn Beck laughing at Nancy Pelosi’s prophetic tears for Harvey Milk in 2009.  (You know, I don’t think the best way to critique Glenn Beck or John Boehner is to say they cry too much, either!  Or that they need to man up.)  And while I might not be doing much more here than glossing k-punk’s wonderful writing on Fans and on the Trolls and Grey Vampires who attack them, I think my three near-arbitrary examples—Larry Ryan, Seth Green, Glenn Beck—point toward something which k-punk doesn’t address explicitly, and which it’s very important to me to keep in mind: which is that, while something like trolling or Grey Vampirism does represent “a subject position that (any)one can be lured into,” surely it tends to flourish most nastily in settings where there are already important differences in place between subject positions or levels of privilege.  It’s always easier for some people to troll than for others.

All of which leads me really indirectly to my other favorite short Internet movie of the year, whose key sentence, arguably, is “Let us stop saying that it sounds stupid,” and which contains another line that might inspire trepidation (but above all among those of us playing the Troll or the Grey Vampire?): “I am a person.  That’s why I study the humanities.”

This comes in “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?,” an xtranormal response to the “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video that so many people were passing around in October 2010.  I don’t have much to say about the first video, because Aaron Bady said the important things in a lovely post about it.  (It was thanks to Aaron that I saw the response video too.)  I also really don’t mean to attack the first video’s author, a PhD student who was voicing genuine concerns about what the future held (and calling out Harold Bloom’s misogyny—always a good thing), and who wasn’t actually as cynical as the video itself (no one could be), and who I think never expected it to get so popular.  What bothers me, in fact, is precisely the way this text left its author behind and seemed to become almost universally beloved—even (or especially?) by people outside the world it discussed—and accepted as the truth about what graduate school in the humanities was like.  And distributed by everyone as a reason not to go to graduate school in the humanities.  But I had enjoyed a couple of xtranormal videos before, and it wasn’t until I watched “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities” (and thought more about the “Cold War” video) that I realized one of the generative structural limitations of the xtranormal form, which many users have taken advantage of, is that it gives you the ability to craft reasonably lifelike human conversations, without the ability to make one of the participants burst into tears.  In response to this depiction of an impossibly clueless student berated by an impossibly heartless professor, though, the second video, “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” (where, as the title indicates, the question of graduate study is actually a question), shows a teacher who warmly compliments her student’s paper on Hamlet and its “comparisons between liturgy and theater,” in a conversation that is itself somewhere between liturgy and theater: almost a secular prayer for, or a profession of faith in, the 21st-century humanities; which, as such, has something in common with Derrida’s late lecture “The Future of the Profession or the University Without Condition,” possibly my favorite thing Derrida ever wrote, and possibly an underread work of his.  To recognize (as Derrida does) that the university without condition has never existed, and never will, is not the same as telling a student, You are in no condition to go to graduate school, and you never will be, and on no condition will I prepare you for it properly. It’s even, you could say, the opposite.  “A PhD in the Humanities?” would obviously not exist without “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” and maybe they do need to be watched together (in the same way that “Tightrope” wouldn’t be what it is without “Cold War?”), but the affects and implications of the second video are so blessedly different from those of the first that I’d just like to find the person who made it, ask if it’s OK for me to give them a hug, and give them a hug if it’s OK.  I’d also like more people who work in the humanities to see it.

(I really can't figure out how to embed the video, but please click on the picture for the link)

“Perhaps, even, we will speak in human voices”: isn’t this also a Pinocchio story, in the form of a beautifully self-reflexive rumination on the difficulty of finding your voice as a writer and pedagogue, in a setting that might have a lot invested in turning you into a puppet or a robot?  And so, speaking of animation, I don’t think it’s irrelevant at all here to note that Melissa Harris-Perry says Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story reminded her of being a grad student (or that Toy Story 3 provoked such fantastic further thoughts from other academics on labor, alienation and commodification).  To a sort of striking degree, the distance between “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” and “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” is the narrative distance covered in the first Toy Story movie.  A few months ago, a frankly baffling number of people seemed to have fun watching Professor Jerk curse like a cowboy at a student who trusts her, effectively telling her, “You! are! a! toy!” … and, as Aaron’s post suggests, there’s a recognizably Woodyesque ressentiment at work: you yell at this person, you try to hurt and diminish this would-be voyager, not just because you think they’re stupid but because it’s obvious to everyone that they are newer and shinier than you, readier than you are to think about going to infinity and beyond, and eventually you may be forgotten and they may well have taken your place.  Of course, in Toy Story, Buzz has something to teach Woody; and part of what’s being conveyed in “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” is that, if you’re lucky and things go right, a PhD in the humanities can mean, if not exactly flying, then at least falling with style.

That’s especially poignant, as I’m sure you can imagine, for someone who came across this response video at just the moment when it had become totally clear that grad school wasn’t going to be manageable, at least for now—partly because of the pressures that always come with it, but at least as importantly because of individual issues with depression and anxiety.  When Daniel and I started this blog about a year ago, it was partly as a way for me to keep writing and thinking and preparing to re-enter an English PhD program, after briefly giving it a try in the fall of 2009.  Then it didn’t work out in the fall of 2010, either (in spite of the unbelievable generosity shown by everyone in my department about giving me a second chance).  So I’d just like to close by stating, for the record, that I’ve seen “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” and I left graduate school in the humanities, but it wasn’t because of that.  And, finally, now that this blog is no longer serving the function for me that it once did, I’m already really intensely aware of the temptation to let it become a kind of fantasy space, where I invest a lot of my time and energy into trying to feel like a grad student without doing any real work, instead of actually getting my shit together and figuring out where my life is going to go now.  So I’ll try to resist that.  But I’ll also definitely try to keep writing things here—possibly shorter things, possibly things of a more personal i.e. even more boring nature, while Daniel (if he’s able to) keeps contributing his own thoughts from an academic setting—and if anyone kept following along, that would be nice.

August 17, 2010

Bubble / dreams / forever

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER refers partly back to lyrics from Lady Gaga’s song “Speechless,” which, when I first listened to the song, I heard as follows: You popped my heart seams / All my bubble dreams / Bubble dreams.  I thought there was an effective, creepy symmetry here, in the presentation of two precisely opposed images of popping: the song’s (male) addressee has caused an interior transformation in the (female) speaker, the swelling of her heart beyond its limits, ultimately undoing the seams that held the organ together—an affective pop from the inside; and, like some figure in a Saul Steinberg drawing or a Chuck Jones cartoon, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, he’s also taken hold of something sharp and burst the balloons emanating from the speaker’s head that manifested her interiority, which technically he wasn’t supposed to be able to see, her bubble dreams or maybe more precisely her dream bubbles: a pop from the outside, which is also a (conventional) challenge to certain conventions of representation.  Except I later confirmed that the lyrics officially go: You popped my heart seams / On my bubble dreams / Bubble dreams … which suggests that the bubble dreams or the dream bubbles in question are altogether weirder, harder, more resilient than I had realized.  As is suggested, too, by the apparently self-contradictory message from the tweet above: bubble dreams forever.  (Consider one clear intertext here: I’m forever blowing bubbles / Pretty bubbles in the air / They fly so high, / Nearly reach the sky, / Then like my dreams, / They fade and die … )

In the context of this tweet, the words express a reaction to U.S. District Chief Vaughn R. Walker’s decision to overturn Proposition 8, the amendment to California’s state constitution that had established “only marriage between a man and a woman” as “valid or recognized” in the state of California.  So they’re words that here generally celebrate the prospect of the acceptance of marriage between women and other women, or between men and other men, as the initial step in a process that will culminate in “full equality” for women who love women and men who love men in California, and by extension the U.S.  I happened to read these words on the evening of August 4th about five minutes before going to see Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian drama The Kids Are All Right, a movie that Jack Halberstam, in a convincing left-queer analysis, describes as “a scathing critique of gay marriage,” of the rhetoric of equality, that doesn’t quite seem to recognize itself as such: a movie that asks its viewers to keep the faith in a social institution (the heteronormative long-term monogamous state-sanctioned institution of marriage) that it depicts relentlessly as a long, hard, oppressive and largely unrewarding slog.  “[L]ike many a heterosexual drama that turns the family inside out only to return to it at the film’s end,” Halberstam writes, The Kids Are All Right suggests “that marriage is sexless, families turn rotten with familiarity, lesbians over-parent and then it asks us to invest hope into this very arrangement.”  The scene that most directly conveys the specific sexlessness of Nic and Jules’s marriage might be the one in which Nic (Annette Bening) tries to apologize for the way she’s been acting toward Jules (Julianne Moore) by pampering her for the evening, preparing a luxurious bubble bath, only to get distracted by a work-related phone call downstairs, leaving Jules (in one of the film’s most poignant and depressing images) alone in the bathtub as the water gets colder and colder and the bubbles eventually disappear.

In this sense, the tweet celebrating the anticipated acceptance of gay marriage across the U.S. acts both as a summary of utopian impulses in Gagaism, and as a reminder that some kinds of radical political action or commitment shouldn’t be expected from, and were never promised by, Lady Gaga—comparable to the tweets from five days earlier, justifying her decision to go on with the Monsterball performance in Phoenix, Arizona, in spite of a widespread call from fans in the Arizona queer migrant community and their allies to honor the anti-racist state boycott: “The Monsterball is by nature a protest: A youth church experience to speak out and celebrate against all forms of discrimination + prejudice.”  Having signed the boycott petition, I was disappointed by this, but also surprised by how little I was surprised.  Lady Gaga is a political actor whose political actions (learning of the repeal of Prop 8 and beginning to compose music; generating revenue for the city of Phoenix by playing a show there and speaking out against SB1070 from inside the Monsterball) are generally not going to leave a certain pop realm (pop from the inside), that weird queer house inhabited by Lady Gaga, Mother Monster, and her fans, the little monsters.

So it becomes tempting to make any number of critical arguments about “the bubble that (only) Lady Gaga inhabits,” or “the bubble she creates (only) for her fans,” whether the bubble in question is felt to be ideological, affective, temporal, or some amalgamation—as illustrated by Gaga herself, in the New York interview from March 28 with Vanessa Grigoriadis: “A year from now, I could go away, and people might say, ‘Gosh, what ever happened to that girl who never wore pants?’ But how wonderfully memorable 30 years from now, when they say, ‘Do you remember Gaga and her bubbles?’ Because, for a minute, everybody in that room will forget every sad, painful thing in their lives, and they’ll just live in my bubble world.”  The accent here should arguably fall on my, because a central focus of Gaga’s art and career from the beginning has been the ubiquity, dreamy plasticity, and deceptive impermeability of temporal, affective, and ideological bubbles in late capitalism.

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER, read at a certain angle, sounds eerily synonymous with “capitalist realism”: neoliberal capitalism’s self-professed permanence in superiority to all other political systems; or the apparent impossibility, at this historical juncture, of effectively imagining an alternative to neoliberal capitalism, as diagnosed and described by Mark Fisher, who writes: “With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism itself is fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive comedown” (35).  Voyou Désoeuvré extends Fisher’s identification of Lady Gaga as, “on the face of it, […] the sound of” capitalist realism into an analysis of Gaga as, precisely, capitalist realism’s glamorous, critical, reflexive face (an analysis that overlaps somewhat with Kathryn Leedom’s discussion of Gaga’s “figurative mirroring or projection of consumer culture”).  “Bad Romance” is arguably still the most important text in this connection.  The video, with its constant product placement and famously explicit depiction of a many-faced Gaga as the commodity appraised and finally bid for and bought by men, is in some sense only bouncing off ways in which the original lyrics had already configured “romance” as a kind of late-capitalist microcosm: a violent lurching between irrational exuberance and depressive comedown (“I want your love and I want your revenge“) which depends on desire-as-speculation, with full knowledge that the assets might be toxic (“I want your ugly, I want your disease / I want your everything, as long as it’s free”).  The song puts romantic love and Gaga’s own megastardom together in and as an unsettling speculative bubble: the “romance” of the title is simultaneously something that someone’s got that Lady Gaga wants, and something that the two of them must produce, or, more precisely, “write” together.  Does that weird line, “You and me could write a bad romance,” actually suggest anything more strongly than bad credit, or the act of writing a bad check?

(Gaga in the bubble dress, telling the crowd, “Some say that Lady Gaga is a lie; and they are right, I am a lie; and every day I kill to make it true”; or singing, “A little gambling is fun when you’re with me…” then interrupting herself to say: “What do you even need me for, you know all the fucking words!  I’m just a blond bitch in a bunch of bubbles!  And I’m OK with that.  Where was I?”)

If there’s one facet of the “Bad Romance” video that most literally shows Lady Gaga caught in a bad romance, it’s the series of shots of her body suspended in a hanging cluster of diamonds, carefully observed by the soon-to-be-bidders, as the camera Matrix-like circles the room.  And if this tableau looks like a revision, or a frozen explosion, of the bubble dress that had become famous earlier in 2009, the dress itself can be read as a kind of freeze-frame device: a denaturalization through costume of one of the forms of “becoming-woman” mandated by contemporary capitalism, the disciplining of the female body which (as Anywn Crawford argues) Katy Perry happily renaturalizes with the “toned, tan, fit ‘n’ ready” female forms, cultured for male consumption, of the “California Gurls” video.  The bubble dress lingers playfully but seriously, spectacularly, speculatively, on the labor that’s meant to be at least half-invisible here.  And it’s a specifically feminized labor: when Andy Samberg unwittingly wears the same costume on Saturday Night Live, we’re all meant to laugh, because it’s so ridiculous, right?  (On the work of performing femininity and its results: see also Beyoncé’s “Why Don’t You Love Me” video, as analyzed in a brilliant post by Silvana Naguib.)  While Gaga’s bubble dress doesn’t necessarily feel dystopian, or draw attention to the pain involved—just the opposite, in fact—by the time we get to “Bad Romance,” to paraphrase one evangelist of the important distinctions between male and female body-disciplines, the bubbles are now diamonds! A bubble of diamonds, so sharp and hard you could pop heart seams on it, even.  (Or, to take another example from advertising: compare Gaga’s dress with the bubbles that stick around, in an incredibly upsetting, rightly withdrawn ad for Method cleaning products last year, where the chemical “Shiny Suds” of rival cleaning-product companies are depicted as horrible frat-boy monsters who linger toxically in the bathtub long after a woman has cleaned it and sexually harass her while she showers.)

So I take it that one of the most valuable moves made by Lady Gaga so far has been a kind of extended performative refutation of Thomas Friedman’s claim, seven years ago, that “[w]e are all now in a post-bubble world.”  That sentence comes from “The Third Bubble,” a truly amazing op-ed piece published in the New York Times on April 30, 2003, and summarized by Friedman a month later on Charlie Rose.  Yeah, this is the video that culminates with Friedman’s horrifying “Suck on this!”—an ejaculation preceded and enabled by a two-minute discourse, Gagaesque in its grotesque surrealism, on all the different kinds of bubbles that have been expanding for decades, most importantly a “terrorist bubble” that the United States needed to burst with “a very big stick” by invading, arbitrarily, the nation of Iraq, so that the world could remain safely post-ideology, free from terror, enlightened.  The American invasion of Iraq justified retrospectively (seven years ago) as the War to End All Bubbles.

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER

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