Have a Good Time

January 7, 2017

Freedom ’90, ’98, ’16

David Letterman is having a bad night, as a joke but also for real. Meryl Streep has been forced to cancel and he’s built his monologue around her absence. After the commercial break, he can’t let it go—the sounds of applause and a saxophone swell as his cameras trace the path Streep might have walked to join him, and then he addresses his questions to an empty chair, mining his resentment for awkward laughs, Eastwood-style. When a member of the audience interjects, “I came to see you, David,” he asks her to repeat the compliment but can’t bring himself to thank her. Nor can he summon much enthusiasm as he introduces the first genuine guest of the night, who then strides onstage wearing a sharp black suit and an easy, sanguine, suggestive smile, which will somehow remain on his face for ten minutes and will put the whole setting to shame.

Shame is meant to be the subject of the night. This is November 1998, seven months after George Michael’s arrest for “lewd conduct” at a public restroom in Beverly Hills. Letterman is confused about how long it’s been, just as he seems confused about whether Michael has appeared on the show before or whether he’s slated to play any music later. Michael just grins through everything. He maintains the air of a visitor from a more graceful galaxy as Letterman begins a prurient and crabbed interrogation, pressing Michael for details on the arrest (“Maybe I’ve been misled—I was under the impression you didn’t mind talking about this”) and then retreating into mock horror and family values as soon as those details emerge (“Hanson is here tonight!”). The entire ten-minute interview is structured around what Michael reveals he has been told not to say, above all “the M-word.” So the rhythms of the conversation build up to the illicit utterance almost as intensely as pre-chorus chords make way for “sex,” “faith,” or “freedom.” When the impossible finally arrives, halfway through—“I’m not allowed to say ‘masturbation'”—the moment is expressly musical, with Letterman’s band kicking in to drown out further speech for a moment, enforcing the spirit of the law if not its letter, and Michael standing to take a couple of quick bows. “I guess half of America just switched over, yeah?” he asks as he sits back down. “No,” Letterman responds, “I think they’re switching here. I think word is spreading across the yards.” Here, too, the law is set to a kind of music. The joke’s implication (which puts it on the side of many other jokes I remember hearing in 1998) is that the nature of this guest’s shifting public persona dictates that his biggest fans should be in prison.

sex-is-good

What that joke acknowledges, then, in its uneasy way, is that George Michael is here to offer a vision of freedom. A quiet contest over the meaning of freedom is disguised in banter and bound up with competing notions of innocence. Letterman aims for liberality when he speculates that Michael’s “reason for going into the restroom […] was innocent enough,” and Michael simply gives the frame of that question the slip, in a response that still makes me gasp: yes, he was completely innocent, and he often enters public spaces looking for sex with other men. He brings to this interview the same generous refusal of respectability that strengthened his bond with LGBT audiences around the world even as it restricted the scope of his career in the years that followed. This is the spirit of the “Outside” video, released a month earlier, in which Michael sings “Yes, I’ve been bad” with that same smile (always impossible for me to disconnect the voice from the smile) while a public bathroom becomes a Technicolor disco.

On this night in November the transformation is subtler—a gray CBS stage becomes a platform for gay freedom—and it revolves around George Michael’s self-presentation as a glamorous and unapologetic and notably British gay man, at home in the U.S. yet still bemused by American attitudes toward sex and frustrated by prohibitions around speech. (“I’m not allowed to say the words, am I? I’m a bit stuck here.”) This performance marks him out as a kind of precursor or mirror image to another celebrity whose star has been rising over the last year, and whose name it’s almost too painful for me to write next to Michael’s. I’m going to have to, though, since the year ended with what I take to be an evil and resonant synecdoche: one died at 53, and the other got a six-figure book deal.

2016 is over now. Bad news will keep coming from all sides, and I’m bracing myself not only for the bad news but for all the scrupulous reminders that will surely come in its wake, the reminders that bad news has no expiration date and that there was nothing specially fated about 2016. All of which is true enough. But I think it’s possible to be fairly precise about what the public fiction of 2016 meant to many people, or what people might be expressing when they say they hated it, the whole year. And, again, I think it has something to do with freedom. To me, anyway, here is a large part of what “2016” stands for: on the one hand, the untimely departure of a cluster of artists and public figures who adapted popular American idioms—athletic, cinematic, and musical—to make statements that helped more than one generation imagine what freedom felt like, in childhood and beyond; and, on the other hand, the vicious formal clarification of what “freedom” actually means to white America, in the voting booth and on the street. Half of America just switched over. I don’t exactly think Lauren Berlant is wrong to say that those who voted for Trump did so because they “feel unfree.” But I would find that analysis more helpful if it took a more direct account of “the Trump Emotion Machine” as a machine of terror and domination, in the works for hundreds of years, or if it felt less proximate to the claim that what was missing from the election was empathy for Trump voters.

White supremacy and its freedom from empathy and accountability found new vessels in 2016, not just in Trump and Pence and Bannon but also in Milo Yiannopoulos, whose importance to the libidinal economy of Trumpism seems clearer every day. If, as Joshua Clover wrote a few years ago, conditions were apt in 1990 for a George Michael song flirting with gay visibility to “crystallize the feeling of the post-Wall moment,” then I think some feelings of the Build-That-Wall moment find a related expression in Milo and his performance of freedom as violence.

A pair of pictures featuring cop uniforms and sunglasses offers a kind of condensed chapter in the evolving history of the options open to cis white gay men in U.S. public culture. The first is issuing a plea for sexual openness by embracing and mocking a spectacle intended for his own humiliation. Shortly after the release of these images he will be sued by the same officer who arrested him. The second, two decades later, is in the middle of a national campus tour sponsored by a fascist news organization which will soon be ensconced in the White House; he proclaims that “blue lives matter” and reads antiblack propaganda from his iPad. Whenever he’s named as the key contemporary proponent of white nationalism that he is, he will continue to weaponize for his own purposes the promiscuity that George Michael fought to make sayable and visible, returning over and over to the fetishistic alibi that he can’t be a white nationalist because he sleeps with black men. For this reason and others, it’s hard for me to avoid seeing the “free speech” now endorsed by Simon & Schuster as a specific travesty of the freedom which George Michael sought and which the world never truly granted him. At the same time, as B. B. Buchanan observes in the most instructive antifascist analysis I’ve read of Yiannopoulos’s tour, “these debates are not about freedom of speech, but about communities, the continuation of Black queer death, and problems which precede this speaker and run far deeper than his individual impact.”

Lies about freedom have long histories, then. George Michael’s inclusive pop fantasy, which I will find new ways to keep mourning, said: All we have to do now is take these lies and make them true somehow. The awful joke of Trumpism, backed by Milo Yiannopoulos and the alt-right, says: Take these lies … please. 2016 was Trump’s year, Milo’s year, death’s year, America’s year. My hope is that after 2016 things will line up less neatly, though; and I think they might. Word is spreading.

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.

June 28, 2011

Coined sovereignty, brought justice, promised joy

“Derrida made clear in his short book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that towards which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realised would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed).”
—Judith Butler, “Jacques Derrida”

“No, they cannot touch me for coining; / I am the king himself.”
King Lear, IV.vi

A year ago, Daniel wrote here about the Israeli military’s conclusions regarding the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, and the verdict of a Los Angeles jury in the trial of Oscar Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle (who, two weeks ago, walked free); and, following a line of thought traced by Jakada Imani, asked: “What would justice look like?”

I just want to ask that question again in the middle of 2011, a year that seems fated to be widely remembered as a special year for justice, or even as the year in which justice was done. Announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, President Obama used the word “justice” five times: once, at the end of his speech, in an effort to situate this assassination as a marker of the blessed utopian potentiality of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” (on which suggestion, see Kai Wright’s “The Ability to Kill Osama Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great”); once to pay tribute to the American intelligence community’s “pursuit of justice”; once, of course, to assure the families of bin Laden’s victims that “justice has been done”; and twice, elaborating on and deepening that same point, in reference to the fulfillment of a promise made ten years ago—that the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks would be “brought to justice.” One detail that these references conceal, but that the video I’m posting below recognizes and illustrates, is that the promise fulfilled on May 1 was not (literally) that promise. It was George W. Bush’s assertion on September 20, 2001 that “[w]hether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

This is an instance of antimetabole, a term defined by Wikipedia as “the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed grammatical order,” and etymologically based in the combination of the Greek anti (“opposite”) and metabole (“turning about”). It’s the kind of rhetorical flourish that tended to be put forward admiringly as evidence that, when the occasion demanded it, President Bush could get serious. Is there any other recent moment of American political antimetabole at once so meaningless and so plainly, terribly significant? To speak of this alternative possibility of “bringing justice to our enemies” is to speak not just to the belief that, in Butler’s words, “one has already arrived at justice,” but to the unspoken faith that justice is proper to the United States, that it has no authorization or meaning beyond the reach of the United States. In other words, I would argue, it only indexes in the most explicit way what was already present in this specific invocation of the act of “bringing our enemies to justice,” heralding as it does the Global War on Terror. It clarifies what kind of “justice” this war will entail, and in what spirit it will be pursued. It might not be adequate to say that “bringing our enemies to justice” (with its air of righteous self-assurance—and maybe, when spoken by Obama instead of Bush, of convincing ethical seriousness) and “bringing justice to our enemies” (with its suggestion of a vengeful, far-reaching violence, inflicted on bodies to whom justice itself is foreign) are two sides of the same coin. They might be more like the same side of the one-sided coin of imperial American power. Which is why I would say that right now it’s possible to know exactly what justice looks like, or at least what this justice that has just been done looks like.

[A TV ad for The Justice Coin. Transcript at the bottom of this post.]

One expectation we might have of any reference to justice figured as a coin, a “justice coin”—an expectation which I think this ad helpfully overturns or turns about—is that it would necessarily come in the service of a recognition of some sort of inherent doubleness: a tribute paid to what Henry James said he was looking for in What Maisie Knew, in his pursuit of “themes” that would “reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong.” Jamesian passages like this one, as Phillip Barrish notes, are often taken to indicate an ideological overlap between literary realism, with its portrayal of “a complex world where actions always have multiple ramifications and effects,” and a political “realism” according to which justice must always be sought and paid for in compromises with injustice and violence. In this view, true maturity comes with a kind of happy acceptance that it was necessary for the U.S. to kill bin Laden and that in the pursuit of such justice it was necessary to get our hands dirty: by, say, extracting evidence through torture, or killing untold numbers of civilians with drones and bullets, or shooting our extrajudicial enemies in the head and burying their bodies in the sea.

Now, with respect to James and his work, this is why I basically prefer to agree with Eve Sedgwick that the most interesting content of such passages isn’t related to justice at all, but rather to the shameful pleasure of queer sex. (Which puts the “bright hard medal” in a long and broad history of literary queer money, bearing in mind that one of the earliest meanings of “queer” is “counterfeit.”) But it’s also exactly why I think something like a TV ad for “The Justice Coin” is a valuable document. It seems to reveal something about the counterfeit nature of the maturity of realism—about what Jodi Dean, in her post on obscenity and assassination, identifies as an infelicitous attempt to cover “an obscene enjoyment of violence and arbitrary power” with “the big Other of justice.” (As Dean goes on to say, “we remain stuck in a realism of the worst, excusing our worst impulses as ‘realistic.'”) The “bliss and bale” of the United States alone mark each face of this coin, respectively: one side shows the Navy SEALS who “carried out Operation Geronimo” and the words “YOU CAN RUN / BUT YOU CANNOT HIDE”; the other side shows the spectral twin towers, the signs of a horror that everyone remembers, but already overlaid with the words of both President Bush and President Obama, promising first that justice will be done and then that it has been. In what looks like a material answer to zunguzungu’s question as to whether bin Laden’s death marks “the conclusion or the final normalization of ‘9/11’,” ten long years (in which of course bin Laden did hide, and in which a totally incomprehensible number of people who weren’t bin Laden were killed, maimed, tortured, and displaced) are collapsed into one moment of trauma and resolution, to be commemorated forever—in this case through the purchase of a collectors’ item, valued at $99, which could be ours now for $19.95. That seems obscene, and I think it is. But I also think it might be a mistake to regard the obscenity as merely a counterfeit addition to the justice that has been done, like a layer of gold on a brass coin. On the contrary, I think a text like this ad—weird, upsetting, straining so hard and so unsuccessfully to convey authority and legitimacy—is what does justice to these events.

“When celebrants chanted ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’ and sang “God Bless America,” were they not displaying a hateful ‘us versus them’ mindset?

Once again, no.”
—Jonathan Haidt, “Why We Celebrate a Killing,”  The New York Times

I had just finished thinking about this post a few days ago, on June 24, when the New York state legislature legalized gay marriage: an impressive victory in a fight which—to make this clear quickly—I, as a queer person, have felt for a while not to be mine. (See Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on the violence of assimilation, Sassafras Lowrey on priorities and the queer homelessness epidemic, Kenyon Farrow on racism and the marriage movement, or “Beyond Marriage.”) It was my last night in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I’d been working for three months as an anti-Walker “field organizer” (but not really—more on this later, maybe), and I was sitting in a coffee shop looking at Twitter, when suddenly my feed went into overdrive and almost everyone was ecstatic. I saw that Amanda Marcotte had written, “I love the USA chant. Exactly. That’s what it should be for,” and I realized that for the second time in as many months there was a public celebration of justice in New York, with that chant in the air. Implicit in Marcotte’s remark is a normative distinction between the celebration of marriage rights and the celebration of a killing that the chant shouldn’t be for—which, of course, is a distinction that really matters, and I don’t want to imply that these are similar events. Part of me wants to express nothing but solidarity with my gay American sisters and brothers who want to get married, and happiness at their ability to have intimacy publicly recognized and respected in the ways they want and need. But another part of me wants to add, hegemonic American nationalism is hegemonic American nationalism, and sometimes it’s homonationalism; which is to say that the spectacle of “USA!,” in the wake of a decision to expand a circle of privilege for one subset of New York state’s queers, can’t be abstracted from an ideological environment that privileges the “tolerance” of states like the USA, the UK, and Israel while systematically and violently conflating Orientalized bodies and cultures with homophobia and queer death.

 

So I just sat for a while at the coffee shop in Appleton considering these two photos—one taken just after the New York legislature’s announcement, the other taken on the night of bin Laden’s death and shared by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore—and remembering the night, two months earlier, when I was at a bar down the street with Ben and other members of our campaign team, and suddenly the music was turned off, the TV volume was turned up, and everyone at the bar, including others at our table, was loudly toasting the death of bin Laden. I realized that in reaction to each of these very different experiences—sitting in a bar that had become a space to celebrate a killing, and sitting in a cafe reading endless online expressions of joy, over victory in a struggle I felt pressured to be invested in, but wasn’t—the shape of my feeling was approximately the same. I remembered Sara Ahmed’s recent work on moments when we become “affect aliens,” in her book The Promise of Happiness and more briefly in the great essay “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” recently shared on Twitter by SubaBat. As Daniel helped me see, there’s something here—in Ahmed’s “We are not over it, if it has not gone”—that could be akin to a rewriting of Derridean justice into the affective sphere: where, at least for a certain kind of willful subject, (political) joy is fully conceivable only as spectral, as to-come. This possibility is obviously there in the title of her book: maybe I’ll report back soon, when I’ve actually read it. In the meantime, in the language of the infomercial, I’ll try to sum up my feelings about these two moments of justice by saying I’m not sure I buy it, and I’ll end this post by reframing it as a quiet invitation to join me in feeling like a justice killjoy.

[Ad transcript.

Narrator: September 11, 2001.  The terrible events of that day will live in infamy.  But the United States would ensure that those responsible would pay the ultimate price.
President Bush: Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
Narrator: Finally, after ten years, our nation savored the taste of justice.
President Obama: Tonight, I can report to the American people, and to the world: […] Justice has been done.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. [Gunshot] We give thanks to the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. 
Narrator: And now the Historic Coin Mint is making available this rare commemorative coin paying tribute to the Navy SEALS who carried out Operation Geronimo—featuring SEAL Team 6, with their distinctive trident and their classified stealth helicopter.  On the other side, the tragic reminders: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, along with the powerful words of our presidents.
President Obama: Justice has been done.
Narrator: A collectors’ item, it’s forged from brass and coated in magnificent 24-karat gold.  It’s valued at $99, but for a limited time is now available for just $19.95.  You’ll also receive this acrylic protective case to preserve it and this certificate of authenticity.  But wait: be one of the first 500 callers and you’ll also receive this distinctive SEAL Team 6 lapel pin to wear with pride, and the Operation Geronimo military briefing packet.  With photographs, maps, and operational details, it’s a $79 value.  Today, it’s yours free—just pay shipping and processing.  Altogether, an over $200 value, still for only $19.95.  You’ll even have a 30-day inspection period to get a full refund of your purchase price.  This offer won’t last long, so order right now.]

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.

January 14, 2011

Two pieces on gun violence in America

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