Have a Good Time

December 27, 2015

“Turn the camera”: On fascism, racism, and Donald Trump

I have a long story about my decision to interrupt a Donald Trump rally and its aftermath. The story touches on upsetting subjects and contains details of emotional distress I’ve experienced in the last week, which has not disappeared. As I see it, though, there are two crucial larger points. The first is about historical ties and morphological similarities between antisemitism and Islamophobia, and the second is about Trump’s own willingness to harness these two forces together in what he might regard as the coalition that will return America to greatness. In any case, that willingness now seems to me undeniable.

I had learned about a week in advance that on December 21 Trump would be holding a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I’ve lived for several years. Protest events began materializing on Facebook right away. Some were more serious than others, but, as organizers of the local Black Lives Matter chapter remarked, all too many were set up by white people who were not averse to policing the tactics and tone of other activists. At least one page was shut down after heated arguments both among aspirant protesters and between them and the Trump trolls. News started coming in, too, about stringent measures to be adopted by the stadium hosting the assembly. There was no way to know what the evening would look like. Everything was a bit of a mess.

I wanted to play a role in responding to the rally, though, because, of course, I fear Donald Trump. To my view of him I would attach no particular claim to insight or originality. I think he’s one face of angry whiteness in a settler-colonial state founded on white supremacy and genocide, and in this sense I’ve tended not to read him as a pure anomaly, or as somehow external to American political discourse. At the same time, I believe it means something when a public figure of Trump’s popularity and influence abandons even the facade of liberal-democratic values and draws virtually the whole of his support from openly professed racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and militarism. However one feels about American electoral politics, I believe resistance becomes necessary against the specific discursive shifts enabled by such a figure—and, as W. Kamau Bell and Adam Mansbach have lately been arguing, I think the responsibility for such resistance rests in a distinctive way with white Americans, in whose name Trump acts, and whose energies he presumes to channel.

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So I decided I would go to the Deltaplex Arena on December 21, quickly assess the protests outside, and, if I did enter the stadium, try to find an effective way of disrupting the speech. Drawing inspiration from Johari Osayi Idusuyi, I filled my bag with books by James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Junot Díaz, in case there was an opportunity to make myself quietly visible reading them. I also took a printout of a Brittney Cooper article that I might be able, I thought, to start reading aloud.

When I arrived outside the stadium just as the doors were about to open at 5, and saw for the first time how enormous the place was and how many people had already shown up, I knew that the books wouldn’t have much of a chance and that reading aloud from a paper would pose too much of a challenge. I stood for a few minutes in the light rain as a small protest got underway—which, following stadium policy, was situated a considerable distance from the building, by the entrance to the parking lot. Imagining that things there would stay relatively quiet, at least for a couple of hours, I walked toward the arena, waited in a fast-moving line that stretched up and down the lot, passed through the metal detectors in the lobby, and found a seat in the stands on the right side of the stage. For the next hour and a half I watched the stadium fill up, texted with friends, told them about the police on horseback outside and the Christmas music on the loudspeakers within, and fought off a panic attack.

The first interruption came about seven minutes into Trump’s speech, just as I was getting ready to say something. A young white man in the crowd in front of the stage got as far as “Trump, you’re a racist! You’re a bigot!” before the crowd shouted him down and shoved him out. After this it became relatively quiet as Trump started to discuss how it was only ever “one guy” crashing his rallies, so it felt like a good moment. I had been turning over endless things I could say, but I was grateful to have had “You’re a racist” as a kind of overture, and I decided to err on the side of specificity and to focus on one lie which, for the last month, had played a role in Trump’s myth-making that seemed to me axiomatically fascist. As best as I can remember, what I said from when I stood up at the railing in front of the stands to when I had been conclusively removed from the arena was something like:

There were not thousands of people cheering in New Jersey after September 11. There were not thousands of Muslims cheering on rooftops. That’s a lie and it’s racist. Donald Trump’s campaign is built on racist lies, it’s one of the faces of American white supremacy, and it’s our responsibility to fight racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. It’s our responsibility as white people to resist white supremacy.

I got a couple of words into the second sentence of this before someone on the stadium floor launched an impressive “Shut up” and a huge wave of boos followed, drowning out my voice. Around this same moment, the guard who had just reached me turned me around, gently but firmly placed his hands on my upper back, and began leading me down the stairs, back into the lobby (by which time I’d grown silent), and finally out of the building. I know some members of the audience near me heard more of what I said as I left, but, in the camera feeds I’ve found, what you can catch is mostly “New Jersey after September 11, there were not.” The video below has one of the clearest recordings of my voice, starting around the 9:00 mark, and it also briefly shows my exit.

It was over in seconds. Walking out into the evening dark—aware of myself as someone congenitally disposed to avoid both stadiums and shouting, who had just shouted in a stadium full of thousands who, in turn, had shouted at me—I was overwhelmed with relief, adrenaline, and pride. I’d been trying to quit smoking but I shared a cigarette with two protesters ejected minutes later, and I stood in the parking lot watching what felt like the beginning of a steady trickle of others.

After another cigarette I decided to rejoin the rally by the lot entrance. I had been there for a couple of minutes—clapping at honking cars, exchanging good wishes with others who had interrupted, preparing to leave but still dazzled by what had happened—when a white man in his forties or fifties, holding a video camera, approached the group I was standing behind and asked with enthusiasm if anyone had been kicked out. Assuming his good faith, and thinking that it couldn’t hurt to assist in documenting the night’s events, I fought back my aversion to other people’s cameras and raised my hand. He approached closer and positioned himself so that the arena appeared in the distance behind me. He asked me a series of questions about exactly what I had said and how I had been removed, and I answered as best I could while the protest continued several feet away from us. The man told me he had come all the way from Los Angeles to do something just like what I had done, and I nodded with surprise and pleasure. He agreed with me that on September 11 there had not been thousands of Muslims cheering in New Jersey, and I nodded again. He then turned the camera around to capture his own face, adding that the only people who had been arrested for cheering on September 11, as he had just told Donald, were “five Israeli Jews.”

I froze. This would have been the moment to refuse to engage further and to leave. Instead, in shock, I struggled to recalibrate my sense of the person who had been filming my face, and to argue a position. I tried to say that this sounded to me like another racist myth, that I had friends in the Jewish anti-Zionist movement, and that I was very critical of Israeli policy but rejected antisemitism. He asked if I “agree[d] with the slur where they try to say anti-Zionists are antisemites,” and I reiterated that those two words were different but that I saw antisemitism as a real and dangerous force. He swung his camera around for a second to capture some loud chanting and I took the opportunity to stutter, “I think I’m going to head out, but.” He asked for my name, and in my vulnerable polite stupidity I said, “My name’s JR.”

I got some distance from the man and his camera. Trying to collect myself, feeling betrayed and violated, I called Daniel, one of the friends who had kept me company through texts as I’d sat in the stadium. We agreed that the only thing I could do was to find the man again, make it clear that I would never have spoken to him if he’d been honest about his agenda, and tell him to delete his footage of me. I doubled back toward the now-dissipating protest and looked for him, asking several strangers if they’d seen a man with a camera. He was gone.

Over the next twenty-four hours I tried to hang onto the traces that remained of pride or satisfaction in what I had done that evening. I shared the video of my disruption on Facebook without discussing the events that had followed, to which I still felt dizzyingly close. I said only that I might write more about it later, and I welcomed supportive comments and praise from friends. But I was already starting to regret having gone to the rally at all, and feeling a growing fury at myself for having failed to research the false claims of 9/11 celebrations carefully enough to know that one persistent variant replaced Arab/Muslim with Israeli/Jew. (Joshua Keating writes for Slate about five Israeli nationals who were detained after filming the attack, and later deported amid unproven rumors of ties to Israeli intelligence: “The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped the ‘dancing Israelis’ from being a fixture of 9/11 conspiracy theories, particularly anti-Semitic ones, ever since.” I’m tempted to amend this a little, considering the shapes of paranoid thought, and to say that it’s precisely the lack of evidence that has kept the theories going.) I knew that if I had been conscious of that predictable modification—if I had been, in general, less naive about who might be in the Deltaplex Arena that night and about how my voice could be heard—then I wouldn’t have shouted something related to September 11 in any way. I could have shouted “Refugees are welcome here,” or “Borders—what’s up with that?” I could have said “Black lives matter,” or “Abortion is a human right.” Instead I had been the first of two people to invoke September 11, and the second, I assumed, had shouted something about Jews.

It wasn’t until late the next night that I found his YouTube account, when I searched for “trump 9/11” and limited the results to videos from the past week. The video I found—then half an hour old, with fifty views, and now with more than 13,000—was recorded by the man from inside the Deltaplex, and titled “Front-Row Protester Tells Trump ‘ISRAEL DID 9/11!'” At that point I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than a few fragments of it. I confirmed that this man, Martin Hill, who had bitterly lamented the “smear” of antisemitism, maintained a large online collection of videos featuring David Duke, Mel Gibson, and Father Coughlin. He had posted a clip in August of himself running with his camera among the stelae of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, laughing and repeatedly intoning, “Six million Jews.” Looking at his more recent videos and at his website, I realized that he had effectively been following Donald Trump around the country attempting to convince him of Jewish responsibility for the attacks on September 11. There were other interviews with anti-Trump protesters he had tricked into talking to him.

I was sick at the thought of my image appearing in this space. Given that I’d been as vocal as I knew how to be during my real-time recognition that we weren’t on the same side, I spent one near-sleepless night and then another hoping that he would see no reason to post our exchange. On the morning of Thursday, December 24, I found that he’d put it up, under the title “Michigan Leftist Says Dancing Israelis is an ‘Anti-Semitic, Racist Urban Legend.'” There were already a few comments from his Nazi friends, calling me brainwashed, a loser, and a rash. I spent most of Christmas Eve reading about YouTube’s privacy policies and preparing to file a complaint that I hoped would get the video taken down. Complainants are asked to identify an offending channel and video and are given just 200 characters in which to “provide additional information” on the infraction, and I wrote: “This man began filming our conversation without revealing that he is a Holocaust denier and a racist. I don’t want my face and name on his channel, where white supremacists are already commenting.” I’m waiting for a response.

Over the next few days that clip of me saw little activity, but I watched the view count for Hill’s other video rise as it got around in online white-nationalist circles. I noticed that the user “fascist lemming,” who had responded to the video of me with “what a loser smh,” had published a video of his own, now with almost 3,000 views, titled “Trump doesn’t mind if you name the jew!!” I returned to the clip from Hill that I had found too painful to watch earlier, as well as to footage of the rally from multiple news cameras, and I came to the same conclusion that Hill, fascist lemming, and their supporters had now reached with delight: there is essentially no doubt that Trump, who is no more than thirty feet away from Hill and pausing to make direct eye contact, hears him scream, “Jews were arrested on 9/11.” It’s caught easily by cameras much further away than Trump is—in the video above, at 20:15; or here, at 20:10; or here, at 21:01; or here, at 19:27; or here, at 53:07. Following that shout, some others in the crowd around Hill start to voice their disapproval: there’s less noise than I was met with minutes earlier, for the purely negative statement that thousands of Muslims had not cheered, but there is some. A man yells, “Go away, go away.” Trump hesitates for a moment, shrugs, and points to Hill with an open palm. This is his subsequent response, in full:

… He’s all right. He’s OK. Relax. Relax. Relax. Take it easy. He’s very committed—relax. He’s actually a Trump guy, he’s just … [gesturing] … got a lot of energy. OK, shh. OK, shh. OK, OK, sit down, come on. Relax. Relax. He’s on our side. Who would know it, but he’s on our side, I think.

The description of Hill as “very committed,” of course, echoes Trump’s defense of the “passion” of two Boston supporters who had assaulted a homeless Latino man in August, and his refusal to condemn the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester in November. Moments later, when guards come to remove Hill in spite of Trump’s protestations, Hill confides to his camera: “I’m getting thrown out of a Trump rally for talking about Israel. Donald said it was OK. Donald said I could stay.” As Trump moves on with his speech, seeing the guards hustle out the man he just saluted as a fan and attempted to placate, he reminds them to “be nice” and asks the crowd: “Is there more fun than a Trump rally?”

That question marks a space for me where many other questions emerge. I find it hard to know how to respond to them or even to give them a full articulation, but here is a start. It isn’t quite enough to observe that the anti-Muslim persecution advocated by Trump structurally resembles the anti-Jewish persecution in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust (though the logic behind this analogy is clear). Recalling what Hamid Dabashi wrote a year ago about a German newspaper that had mistaken an antisemitic cartoon for an Islamophobic Charlie Hebdo cover, I want to stress that one form of racial hatred has not simply or tidily taken the place of another. The two forces persist, rather, in a state of conversation and co-mutation. Trump, then, responding to the world with his clarifying opportunism, organizes his public statements and campaign rallies around the tenets of mainstream American Islamophobia, and asserts collective Muslim responsibility for terrorism; and, at the same time, he actively welcomes people at those rallies who raise their voices to proclaim collective Jewish responsibility for the same terrorism. The difference seems not to trouble him. He praises their commitment and asks only that they modulate it, so that he can continue speaking.

The white supremacists in online communities who now know this, and who feel emboldened by it, recognize certain complexities. They know that Trump’s daughter converted six years ago to Orthodox Judaism, that she and her father view Judaism and Zionism as closely intertwined, and that Donald Trump has spoken many times in favor of the Israeli state, even going so far as to accuse Barack Obama of “hating Israel.” (David Duke himself, in a video also released over the weekend, qualifies his otherwise wholehearted celebration of Trump’s campaign with regret at Trump’s support for Israel.) The white nationalists are nevertheless impressed by Trump’s patience for their own views, and cheered by the discursive opportunities that other Trumpian speech acts open up for them. In a phone interview on Morning Joe from earlier this month, for example, Trump performs a kind of fascism of ambiguity. He warns Joe Scarborough that “some of our so-called allies, that we work with and we protect […] militarily,” are “sending massive amounts of money to ISIS.” When a puzzled Scarborough asks if Trump means “the Saudis,” Trump replies: “Of course they’re doing it. Everybody knows that. […] There are [others], but I’m not gonna say it, because I have a lot of relationships with people. […] And everybody knows that, and nobody says it.” When the antisemitic conspiracy theorists of the alt right boast that Trump is signaling to them here—as if to reaffirm that his defense of whiteness has room not just for antiblackness, not just for anti-immigrant violence, not just for Islamophobia, but for their particular concerns, too—can that claim be dismissed?

I’m not sure it can, but, in any case, I’m not happy to have arrived in the position of asking the question the way I did. I want to have not spent a full week monitoring online white supremacists who might have watched a video of me. And I never wanted to devote this much time to considering Donald Trump.

I find it difficult to write anything about Trump without falling into the rhythms of a kind of purely additive logic of offense, indexing every line he has comfortably crossed and every marginalized community against whom he invites further violence. And it is, needless to say, important to catalog these offenses, as a record not just of what some Americans want, but also of what America is; and the list is overwhelming. Trump’s hatred of women understandably became one of the most prominent headlines from his night in Grand Rapids, after a calculated series of grossly misogynist remarks on Hillary Clinton. With the luxury of online mediation, which is to say without a lying bigot’s camera in my face, I feel somewhat more comfortable venturing a complex thought and affirming that I am not a supporter of Hillary Clinton while identifying Trump’s spectacularized contempt for her body as awful and dangerous.

As I’ve continued to reflect on my experience that night, though, and on what happened both inside and outside the arena after I was expelled, I’ve kept returning to another theatrical moment that resulted in slightly fewer headlines. This moment prompts questions for me about “fascism,” a frustratingly malleable but still necessary word, and about the historical memory which, whether explicitly acknowledged or not, shades the horizon of every discussion of the American fascism of Trump’s campaign.

About fifteen minutes into his speech—between my departure, then, and Hill’s—Trump complains that the media are against him. They never turn their cameras away from his face to show the size of his crowds. “Turn the camera,” he starts to instruct each photographer individually. Most of them oblige, sweeping up and down the crowds as if Trump were conducting an orchestra. (I don’t blame the camera operators here: faced with the sea of indignant Michigan whiteness they were now documenting, they might have agreed to do so for fear of incurring a riot.)

If only in aesthetic terms—that is, if only in the terms famously laid out by Benjamin in the epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—this is a classically fascist moment. With an air at once harsh and gracious, Trump gives his audience a chance to contemplate the beauty of its own magnitude. This is indeed about me, he’s saying, but I will make them admit it is also about you. I am indeed a great man, but I am great largely insofar as I command your respect and channel your power. Look at that power now. I’ve been haunted for a week, and will be for much longer, by the rhyme between the moment when Hill turned his camera around to spit into it the word “Jews,” and the moment when Trump assumed control of those cameras to honor the anger of a full stadium. He would confirm minutes later that such anger could incorporate, with no direct resistance from him, “commitment” to a politics that begins with the sentence “Jews were arrested on 9/11.” This has been noted.

February 20, 2012

After Space Invaders

 

Like many others, I was both taken aback and intrigued by Mark O’Connell’s essay on Invasion of the Space Invaders, Martin Amis’s disavowed 1982 guide to early arcade games. But I seem to be drawn to the subject for different reasons than many of these other readers and commenters, or even O’Connell himself—because I’m not, as O’Connell professes to be, “an Amis fancier,” and because honestly I wish Amis-fancying weren’t still as widespread as it is. One detail O’Connell identifies as a probable reason for Amis’s desire to keep the book out of print is that its catalogue of all the weirdo types supposedly visible at arcades in the early ’80s includes “[q]ueasy spivs, living out a teen-dream movie with faggot overtones,” which is supplemented by a definition in the glossary at the back—”Faggot: gay.” But that isn’t even what I’m interested in, really. Though as a queer teen I would have loved to live out that movie.

What interests me is the gesture O’Connell makes toward situating this book within Amis’s career, which I think is worth briefly extending. Having quoted one of Amis’s thorough, matter-of-fact instructional passages on actually playing Space Invaders—”The phalanx of enemy invaders moves laterally across a grid not much wider than itself. When it reaches the edge of the grid, the whole army lowers a notch. Rule one: narrow that phalanx“—O’Connell ends the essay with some notes on the structural and thematic importance of games to Amis’s work as a novelist and public thinker. O’Connell’s way of describing Amis’s phobic, martial hostility toward perceived commonness of thought—his “war against cliché,” with its proudly explicit anti-democratic elitism (and its attendant, eternal fetishization of an unbelievably limited definition of “talent”)—is to say that Amis seeks “new ways of narrowing the ever-descending phalanx of cliché.” All value judgments aside, I think there’s something strikingly apt in this picture of the way a writer like Amis conceives of his vocation. And if (like me) you see Amis’s brand of aestheticism-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun as inseparable from, I don’t know, his concern that “feminism has cost us Europe,” or his regret at feeling unable to complete a novella about an “Islamist terrorist” named Ayed who “scour[s] all the prisons and madhouses for every compulsive rapist in the country, and then unleash[es] them on Greeley, Colorado”—if, in other words, you see Amis’s war as a war in defense of extreme cultural privilege, against a feared encroaching otherness, based in an imperial nostalgia which in the last decade has evolved into virulent Islamophobia—then it’s especially interesting to find, thirty years back in Amis’s own work, a proto-allegorization of the figure of the writer who’s literally engaged in the unending task of fending off the alien(s).

My aim here isn’t to make any simplistic claim about the cultural meanings of an artifact like Space Invaders, or to say that such a game can be read only in one way. (I’m sure folks who are better versed in game studies could offer many other points about this—but, for instance, see Sianne Ngai on the zany aesthetic of early arcade games as a model for post-Fordist precarious subjectivity.) I would only suggest that it’s worth setting the existence of Invasion of the Space Invaders (its jokey title implicitly asking, “What else would you expect space invaders to do?”) alongside, say, Amis’s current habit, when he’s pressed on the subject of Islamophobia, of talking about creatures from outer space. (Amis in the Guardian in 2007, in an article titled “No, I am not a racist,” denying he had defended the discrimination against Muslims that he had defended: “I would like London to be full of upstanding Martians and Neptunians, of reputable citizens who came, originally, from Krypton and Tralfamadore.” Amis to Margaret Wente, two years later: “I adore multiracialism. There can’t be enough immigrants in this country for my taste. I’d like to see immigrants from Mars or Jupiter. But multiculturalism, I believe, is a fraud.” This is Martin Amis’s way of saying, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, purple or green.” He doesn’t care if someone comes from the Middle East or from a made-up planet that no one would come from, because it’s made up: all he wants is to keep terrorists out of the phalanx!) And it seems worth adding that Amis and his lifelong comrade Christopher Hitchens (whose presence as “a friend, a hard-drinking journalist” O’Connell detects in one passage from Invasion) wrote, in effect, the same paragraph, about, respectively, the introduction of Space Invaders and the destruction of the World Trade Center:

The main innovation of Space Invaders was as follows: it gave you real drama on the screen. Who cares whether you can eliminate dots with an electric tennis ball? So what if you can knock down ten plastic cowboys on a shooting range? Who gives a toss when a toy car skids on a patch of toy oil? After Space Invaders, we were defending Earth, against monsters, in sublunar skies. Here they come again…

[from a PDF excerpt from the book, via a comment on O’Connell’s article]

On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, [my reaction] turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view. All my other foes, from the Christian Coalition to the Milosevic Left, were busy getting it wrong or giving it cover. Other and better people were gloomy at the prospect of confrontation. But I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.

[from the December 3, 2001 issue of The Nation]

Granted, Amis’s own immediate reaction to the attacks didn’t have Hitchen’s undisguised glee, his “exhilaration” at knowing he would now be able to stave off boredom forever, as if he actually were blurbing an arcade game. (Amis may even have been one of the “better people” Hitchens was taking a swipe at for feeling “gloomy” about watching the Global War on Terror kick into gear.) But it’s difficult for me not to interpret the image of a young Martin Amis self-consciously slumming it in a video arcade in 1982, and taking a sharp satisfaction in the new responsibility of “defending Earth,” as an eerie prefiguration of the way Amis, Hitchens, and so many of their generational peers would seize on “the struggle against Islamism” as the revitalizing force that would give new meaning to their lives and their countries’ lives. Here was a chance to start defending the West—finally, here was real drama on the screen.

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.]

February 12, 2011

In a changing world, however, a change of hairstyle was indicated

The climax of Tangled: Gothel, Rapunzel, and Flynn Rider are together in the tower where the wrong queer mother has kept the daughter who now knows she is no daughter all her life.  Flynn has come to rescue the princess, and Gothel, hidden in the shadows and wearing the same black shawl she’s worn throughout, has stabbed him in the back with an ornate knife; he’s collapsed and dying in a corner, close to the window he entered through, and Rapunzel, bending over him, is on the verge of promising Gothel that she’ll stay with her forever, keeping her young, if she’s allowed to use her hair’s same powers to heal Flynn’s wound.  Flynn can’t let this happen.  With the last gasp of a soon-to-be-renewed life, in a slow-motion gesture that the whole movie has built up to, he uses a shard from a broken mirror to cut off almost all of Rapunzel’s hair, leaving her with a ragged bob that immediately turns black and loses its power.  The yards and yards of abject hair start to go the same way—Rapunzel picks it up at one end and a tracking shot follows the thick darkening rope across the floor to Gothel, who gathers the useless stuff up in desperation and holds it against herself, even as, its magic gone, she starts to age dramatically.  Her own black hair becoming almost the same gray-white as her wrinkling skin, she staggers across the room to the broken mirror and stares into a grotesque kaleidoscope of multiplied eyes, hair, skin, teeth; she screams and pulls the shawl over her hair and eyes, shrinking into it, covering up more and more of herself as she jerks backward toward the light.  Pascal the chameleon gives one of the strands of hair a strategic tug, tripping her up and hastening her flight out the window and a long fall from the tower to the ground, by the end of which her body has completely disintegrated, so that at the moment of impact her shawl opens itself up to reveal nothing but heavy dust.

I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my first post on Tangled but didn’t get into very deeply: which is that, on some level, I don’t have much doubt about the connotative force of these images of Mother Gothel backing away from the mirror.  This is a fifteen-second span of concentrated visual development in which the hierarchies of light over dark, good over evil, the (Disney) beautiful over the (Disney) ugly—hierarchies which, arguably, Tangled has until now been complicating in some interesting ways—reemerge with the fury of the repressed; in these moments, after Gothel’s stabbing of Flynn, the movie has resolved to make her as monstrous to its audience as possible; and the final step, the culmination of that turn, is to hijabize her.  (And to do it so completely that by the end of her fall she’s literally nothing-but-veil: behind this barrier to our gaze, a malignant emptiness.)  Suddenly it’s revealed that any sympathy we might have felt for Gothel earlier must have been misplaced, because, in her last moments of life, her hair and face are hidden from us and she’s keyed into a shorthand which, in some part of the contemporary Western visual imagination, signifies terror.  The fake-mother/daughter dynamic seems newly illuminated—Gothel has always hated Rapunzel (but needed her) because she envies the power of her beautiful, bountiful blond hair, in something like the way they have always hated us (but needed us) because they envy our freedom.

In short, I would see this sequence partly as one that becomes violently symptomatic of a Western fear of the veiled woman, even specifically of the woman who has hair that we can’t see, that she (unlike Rapunzel) won’t let down: the kind of anxiety explored in more interesting terms by someone like Princess Hijab.  (Who, maybe significantly, isn’t Princess Niqab—it’s not always about covering the face—and the Parisian advertising images that she targets with a black marker are often images dominated by luxurious hair.)  But what actually got me thinking more about this was a video Sociological Images posted last year, which I was reminded of by China Miéville’s note on military rules for postcards during the First World War (“All surplus is marshalled by the state to the task at hand”).  This video is from World War II, and it documents a moment that might look like a kind of mirror image of contemporary misogynist Islamophobia.  The suspicious woman here isn’t the one whose hair is covered, but the one whose hair is too long, the sign of excess itself, and, as such, permanently at risk of tangling itself in the war machine.  So the state must step in and tell Veronica Lake (the American actress who is the clearest precursor to Tangled‘s Rapunzel) to change her look.

This footage is so captivating to me that I hardly know where to start … that unbeatable 1940s authoritative Anglo/male voice, for one thing, coolly conceding that Lake’s “witchlock” (without which, by the way, her career was about to decline fast—I want someone to write a play about this) was “not bad on a dance floor, perhaps,” but adding that in austere times of military production a change was “indicated”: dictated, that is to say, but dictated as if by the laws of nature itself, because it was already obvious to all right-thinking people that feminine glamor such as this had to go.  (The camera is made to catch Lake gazing into a mirror and experimenting for a few seconds, and then laughing an unheard laugh (her voice is never part of the film) as if in recognition that her narcissism is ridiculously unpatriotic; and then, behold, there are the hands with the comb!)  Or the sheer oddness—to me, at least—of the reminder that the U.S. government once released messages urging Americans to “put glamor in its proper wartime place”: this distance from the wartime of the present.  Or, best of all, my new favorite sentence, as we watch white female factory workers take moments away from their machines to adjust their ’40s bangs: “Valuable time is lost on a futile gesture.”

That’s where the title of the blog comes in, I suppose, and where it becomes helpful to me to turn, again, to Lauren Berlant’s combover work, or Willow’s “Whip My Hair,” or Lady Gaga, captured so perfectly in the temporal bubble of a fan GIF that @kat_skat sent me—because what hair-whipping Willow and hair-flipping Gaga recognize and clarify, in their different ways, is that “time lost on a futile gesture” is one obvious definition of the space of the aesthetic as such.  Or even, maybe, one way to get at a useful account of subjectivity.  It seems really important to me that in “Whip My Hair” it “don’t matter if it’s long / short,” and that the video shows us what might be a surprising number of girls and boys, in the classroom and the hallway, who whip back and forth heads that are covered by hats, hoods, or hairstyles that stay in place or whip differently from Willow’s (I think it could just as easily be whipping your hijab back and forth): while on one level (which I don’t want to abstract anything from) this is clearly a huge celebration of the beauty of black hair, I think another reason so many people love the song is that it’s about the cogitative and affective excess that builds up around a person, a bit like hair that falls into awkward shapes or gets into her eyes, and how she will always have to take time away to shake it off, shake it off.  That’s one sense in which the insistent repetition of Willow’s refrain works so well (at least for listeners who aren’t haters); this deal can only keep going, but it can be a pleasure.  Or, an alternative endlessness: the form of the GIF, as it so often does (and I’m wondering what’s been written about this, actually), says just what needs to be said.

Less happily, biopolitics will always find its own ways of dealing with perceived excesses or lacks or threats, whether by disciplining hair itself, or banning veils that cover it, in all cases for the ostensible good of the subject.  (Get rid of that Veronica Lake look—don’t you want to be safe?  Take off that veil—don’t you want to be free?)  Staying with Gaga for a minute, which I know I’ve done a lot recently, I’ll close by saying that Gothel and Lake helped me get a better sense of one aspect of last year’s “Telephone” video, or the implications of another appropriation of the image of the hijab.  It’s not just that when Beyoncé sings “tonight I’m not taking no calls / ’cause I’ll be dancing,” her dancing takes the form of whipping her hair back and forth; and it’s not just that Gaga’s hair in the ’40s-style diner takes the form of a phone receiver covering up one of her eyes, at once echoing Lake’s witchlock and indexing the way the “war way of life” of an earlier time has been transformed into the contemporary climate of global communicative capitalism, where, instead of being tangled up in the machinery of mid-century military production, subjectivity gets tangled up in corporate information networks and we forget we’re even at war.  Meghan Vicks rightly points out that after the video’s cathartic act of anti-patriarchal violence Gaga’s hair is “let free.”  I would read the moments after that, though, when she and Beyoncé stand in front of the Pussy Wagon in black and lilac cowboy-veils and tell us we’re not going to reach their telephone, as an attempt (however limited or problematic) to access an even more subversive figure of refusal—in some kind of recognition that, at this cultural moment, fear and suspicion and violence are directed not only toward those whose hair is seen to stand for a frightening feminine excess, but also toward those who insist on their right not to show their hair to the world.  (Tangled understands the first half of this dynamic, but seems to enact the second.)

 

July 27, 2010

“Brother Michael is shining”: Race, capital, metonyms, sheens

And thirty dozen moons with borrow’d sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been…
—The Player King, Shakespeare, Hamlet III.ii

James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, the O’Jays—they all used to really work an audience.  I might have learned more from watching Jackie Wilson than from anyone or anything else.  All of this was a very important part of my education.  We would stand offstage, behind the curtains, and watch everyone come off after performing and they’d be all sweaty.  I’d just stand aside in awe and watch them walk by.  And they would all wear these beautiful patent-leather shoes.  My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather shoes.  I remember being so heartbroken because they didn’t make them in little boys’ sizes.  I’d go from store to store looking for patent-leather shoes and they’d say, “We don’t make them that small.”  I was so sad because I wanted to have shoes that looked the way those shoes looked, polished and shining, turning red and orange when the lights hit them.  Oh, how I wanted some patent-leather shoes like the ones Jackie Wilson wore.
—Michael Jackson, Moonwalk

The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, edited by Mark Fisher, is often a fantastic book, with essays whose sophistication and complex interengagement are nicely captured—if I can stick to the surface, which is what I’m going to try doing throughout this post—by Laura Oldfield Ford’s cover image: not, as it may initially seem, a familiar splitting juxtaposition of the beautiful face of a very young Michael Jackson with the face of the older man, but rather an assemblage of surfaces (hints of the Invincible cover, the Thriller cover, the famous 2003 mugshot) which seem neither at ease with themselves nor capable of fitting together into any whole that exceeds the sum: anxious slicing dimensionality.  The tenth piece in the book, Chris Roberts’ witty fantasy “True enough: Michael in fifty shards,” and the final (very different) piece, Ian Penman’s “Notes toward a ritual exorcism of the dead king,” both similarly exemplify in miniature the kind of collage aesthetic that gives the book its concentrated energy: here are 24 perspectives on, e.g., Michael and Elvis and late pop/rock sovereignty, Michael and Beyoncé and the metonymies of commodification, Michael and Stalin and Soviet nostalgia, Michael and utopia and Greil Marcus’s racism, Michael and Janet and digitization.

One complaint about perspective, though: the book could have benefited from more of them, coming from more writers who were not white and male; I have to say that toward the end I was getting the uncomfortable feeling of a boys’ club sitting in judgment on Michael-Jackson-as-(feminized-)boy, and an association of mostly white folks discussing the perceived deviation from normative blackness that Michael Jackson performed.   I don’t mean these reactions of mine were always directly precipitated by the content of the essays themselves—but sometimes they were.  Consider one example from Penman’s frequently amazing, hallucinatory final essay (a text capable of, for example, condensing most of what I was trying to say about the last 15 years in my post on “Jam” into a single line: “The seductive jouissance of total anxiety” [296]).  This is how Penman deals with rumors that the late Michael Jackson had converted to Islam, and that in Saudi Arabia near the end of his life he wore a burqa and used women’s public lavatories:

If these burka-in-a-rest-room rumors were true … what was that?  A last way of testing out if he was still beyond human law?  ‘I’m Michael: I can do what I want’?  Or childish drugged-up prank?  Or evidence of a man toppled over into serious pathology?

It’s true that the thought or the image of Michael Jackson wearing a burqa, inside or outside a public lavatory, presents an overwhelming amount to unpack—which Penman doesn’t really try to do, and which I can’t hope to do here.  But suffice it to say that, first, this passage is not entirely free of the kind of misogynist Islamophobia that leads Christopher Hitchens to become furious at the sight of a veiled woman, features hidden from his gaze, and to rail astonishingly about his “right to see your face”; and, second, that there are simply some interpretive options that Penman doesn’t list, aren’t there?  “Evidence of a man toppled over into serious pathology”?  What about evidence of a person who was, in spite of what the world thought and what the world continually said, in spite of the male pronouns we all continue to use for want of an obviously proffered alternative, not “a man”?  I don’t say this out of any positive desire to situate Michael Jackson as someone who needs to be “claimed for the transgender community,” which would itself be an extremely problematic move.  (For a lovely discussion locating trans possibilities in the specific register of (Michael’s) voice, though, see this essay by Francesca Royster.)  I would just say that one conceivable response to Penman’s sensationalizing “what was that?” would be: well, that was the case of a person who had, indeed, converted to Islam, and who wanted privacy in Saudi Arabia, and whose gender identity was, indeed, such that it made sense to wear a burqa and to use “women’s public lavatories,” OK?  Moments like these—when I didn’t think it was only a fan’s defensiveness that had me convinced a more sensitive attention to questions of privilege and subject position would have helped—were scattered throughout my experience of the book.

But this isn’t really meant to be a review of Fisher’s collection, which I might have more thoughts on later.  What I’m hoping to do briefly is rather to use the insights from a couple of the essays in The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson as a way of glossing one feature of the book’s textual surface.  Skim along that surface and you’ll find the same word interestingly recurring at similar moments: when the writers here want to describe some quality that dramatically sets Michael Jackson’s music apart, makes it recognizable as Michael, they talk about sheens.  Here are four passages—from, respectively, Fisher himself, Paul Lester, Steven Shaviro, and David Stubbs—quoted both to offer a glimpse of the consistent quality of the writing on display here, and to provide some contextual sense:

“Billie Jean” is not only one of the best singles ever recorded, it is one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multi-leveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on (14).

Musically, the symphonic disco of Off The Wall was his peak.  We’d never heard anything so lavish, it was like Philly soul magnified and multiplied and given an unholy perfect sheen (18).

The modulations of Michael’s voice, the sinuous movements of his dancing, the way that his musical arrangements took disco and R&B and gave them both a smoothness and a slightly alien sheen, so subtly that one could say with equal justice that the sharp edges of mournful or joyous black expression had been “mainstreamed,” or that the very “mainstream” itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away, exposed to a strange new metamorphosis, allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state in which pop crassness had itself become a rare, almost Wildean, delicacy (56).

Bathed in the humid, artificial twilight of the urban west coast, [“Human Nature”] is a thing of unnatural beauty, with Jackson’s vocal shiver arousing an electric frisson across the skin of the song, and the sheen of the ’80s production triggering the sort of ecstatic, self-perpetuating, hall of mirrors effect later brought to a high shine on Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche ’85 (74).

As maybe the third excerpt from Shaviro best demonstrates, “sheen” is inherently uncanny and implicitly calls self-presence into question: when a thing is given a sheen, just what’s happening?  Is it only being given attention, worked on, allowed to shine in its thingness?  Or is something “slightly alien” always being added, even “insidiously”?   (This is all complicated further when what’s in question is the disembodied body of a sound recoding.)  “Sheen” has a common etymology with “shine” (linked to the German scheinen, “to seem”) and is first seen as a noun, rather than an adjective, in those lines spoken by the Player King—that eerie artificer of affect, narrating the poisonous demise of his own feigned sovereignty—from Hamlet.  To describe the radiance that the moon borrows from the sun, Shakespeare’s text borrows the word for that borrowing and reifies it.  And in these four passages on Michael Jackson “sheen” acts transitively, pointing at the same time to a certain sonic effect associated with pop styles of the late 70s and the early 80s—or, more precisely, with the shift from “the 70s” to “the 80s,” something Michael Jackson and his team seem to apply to, or bring more to the surface of, a preexisting musical object or sound-commodity —and to something else, reflected or refracted outward from the songs, some larger quality or set of qualities (synthetic? Wildean? ecstatic? unholy? unnatural?) that Michael Jackson represents.  We’re moving toward the language of Michael Jackson as one who shines; and in some sense that’s the clearest, most uncomplicated metaphor in the world, given that Michael Jackson is a king, a sun, a star, probably the biggest star in history.  “Our bright and shining star,” Maya Angelou calls him in her elegy.  Or, in the brilliant video-encomium “Michael Jackson is Shining,” Unity Lewis raps: “They wanna tear down a true black legend shining; but no matter what you say my brother Michael is shining.  You talk a lot of lies about, him but we see that you’re lying.  Brother Michael is shining.  Brother Michael is shining.”

But that there is (of course) much more to say about Michael Jackson and shining surfaces is suggested by the way Unity’s video begins, after its Al Sharpton-narrated prologue: with the first notes of music and Unity’s assurance that this is “real real serious,” and with the image of Michael Jackson’s iconic, supernaturally radiant white socks and black shoes, spotlit and isolated in the frame, dancing their way across a stage.  The literalization of metaphor here has a real real serious, richly overdetermined, effectively prophetic precedent in the video for “Billie Jean.”  Which was, of course, both the most important video in the early history of MTV, and the first video by an African-American artist to be played regularly on that station; thus, an announcement that America’s new global superstar was black; thus a grand repudiation of everything represented by an infamous remark, attributed to the previous King who had died five years before: “the only thing blacks can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”  Stolen music, borrowed sheen.  I was actually unaware until I started thinking about this post that the word “shine” has its own, especially horrible history as a reified noun—a racist insult, defined by the OED (in one of those entries that, you know, need to be updated) as “[a]n abusive term for a Black.”  So watch Michael, one minute into this video, walking alone down a city street and lighting up the sidewalk with his feet, suddenly shifting his weight and propping his foot up on a trashcan and lightning-quick producing a tiger-striped rag (to become, at the end, a real tiger, just as Michael in “Black or White” will walk down almost the same street and become a black panther) and polishing the shoe that is his, this source of illumination, this metonym for himself and his energies, which he is using to dance Elvis off the fucking planet.  Six years later, in the chapter of his book titled “Just Kids with a Dream,” he will explicate a version of this metonymy himself: “My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather shoes.”  He will describe a doomed search for a sufficiently small pair of shiny shoes, which will begin to sound like the doomed search for a way back to childhood (there’s no place like home) that his life, read through one lens, will become.

(A footnote or shoe-note on Elvis Presley’s racism and Michael Jackson’s pedophilia: they are rather precisely analogous, right?  In that each of them has by now condensed itself into an agonizingly familiar did-he-or-didn’t-he question, a little metonym (just as the slur “shine” is itself a racist-classist metonym), resisting definitive answers and also, on some level of popular consciousness, becoming almost irrelevant.  Whether or not Elvis Presley ever spoke those words about the people buying his records and shining his shoes, the position he occupied in the twentieth-century United States was a position of violently maintained white privilege, and, with respect to African-American musical forms, it was an appropriative position.  The shoe fits.  Whether or not Michael Jackson committed acts of pederasty, had sexual relations with children, he was, of course, in the etymological sense, a pedophile: he loved children, he openly and continually professed this love.  He was an adult who wanted intimacy with children who were not “his own,” in a culture that finds complicated ways of (not-)permitting such intimacy.)

So this five-second cut-up gesture from “Billie Jean” is both looking backward at lived experience and at a history of labor that is being in some way reclaimed, and looking forward at a complex future that is in so many ways dispiriting.  Partly because in functioning as a metonym for Michael Jackson himself, the shining shoe is also already a symbol of the commodification of that self.  The image that currently stands in for Michael Jackson on his official Facebook page is, of course, not one of a face, but a photograph of those white socks and black shoes, dazzling, poised in an unforgettable slightly slanting verticality, given the perfect, eroticized, always-disappointing sheen of the commodity, accompanied by text stating that “No will ever fill” them—and maybe the question to ask is could anyone, did anyone, ever?  Two evocatively titled essays in The Resistible Demise are especially helpful for thinking about what’s involved here, in the dispersement and the becoming-product of Michael Jackson—Sam Davies’ “Glove, socks, zombies, puppets: The unheimlich maneuvers and undead metonyms of Michael Jackson,” and Mark Sinker’s “‘What about death, again’: The dolorous passion of the son of pop.”  Davies views Michael’s body as a kind of Gothic assemblage, animating and dismembering itself through dance and costume in ways that prefigure performances by Beyoncé as the similarly single-gloved Sasha Fierce: Michael and Beyoncé, Davies argues, “in their sublime dancing and uncanny masks and metonyms, disclose the sheer strangeness of their own transmogrification into product” (231).  (This transmogrification through detachment, again, is made fantastically literal in the “Billie Jean” video, at those other moments when Michael’s feet, lips, eyes, hands are not only filmed in closeup but actually cut out of the picture and left to stand alone against a black screen, blason-like.  And for some further updates Beyoncé’s subversive engagement with processes of commodification and objectification and sublime phoniness, see Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o on her performance in the “Telephone” video, as well as Robin James on the robotic poetics of “Single Ladies”).  In Sinker’s fabulous analysis of Michael’s debts to American soul music, by contrast, the essential figure for comparison is James Brown (famously a poor child who supported himself by shining shoes, latterly one of the stars who “worked an audience” and whose “polished and shining” shoes transfixed a young Michael Jackson), recognized here as a kind of artistic-cultural prophet who “combined a commodification of himself, the salesmanship of the idea of everything he was, physically and spiritually, with an establishment of his own self-ownership”—who, indeed, “learnt a lot about the limits and dignities of self-ownership that Jackson never got to find out” (176-177).

One way to end the story—I’m starting to see it more and more as a suspiciously easy ending—is to say that this never-getting-to-find out was progressively written across Michael Jackson’s face: that, rigidly schooled from the beginning in self-commodification, he worked for decades on polishing and selling the commodity, gradually attempting to standardize the product, to make it, in Steven Shaviro’s words, “generically normative: which is to say, in a white supremacist society he wanted to become white” (61).  The final observation to make about the brilliantly polished shoes of the “Billie Jean” video, in this analysis, would be that their light gives Michael’s face, for a fraction of a second, an unearthly glow, a hint of the eventually permanent “hyper white” sheen described by Ian Penman: “see Michael in photos and on film and he is whiter than the white people around him.  He SHINES, a malignant singularity, polarity, negative” (282).

Or it would be possible to move in two directions at once, and quote Kobena Mercer on the way shining black skin is made to function as a (white) fetish in the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and elsewhere, and to look again at the proximity of those shining shoes to sweating black bodies (“We would […] watch everyone come off after performing and they’d be all sweaty”) in the paragraph from Moonwalk, and frame the whitening of Michael Jackson’s skin over the course of decades (taken as at least partly deliberate) as a kind of hopeless resistance to commodification—which is the move gestured toward at a later moment in Penman’s essay: “Not that skin of sweat and toil and punishment and supposed reward.  Rewind > rewind > rewind.  Skin like daylight, like daylight and Christmas” (284).  I have to acknowledge my own discomfort with where this kind of analysis leads—and, again, with the confidence displayed by some of the white writers in The Resistible Demise as they perform variations on what, after all, is by now the standard reading of Michael Jackson and his tragic “desire to become white.”  The diagnosis of vitiligo is not a fact that features very prominently in this book, and it was a real diagnosis, not, I think, something obviously to be dismissed.  (See the comment thread here.)  But surely it says something about Jackson himself—his ubiquity, his singularity, his star power, whatever—that all these contradictory interpretations and hypotheses are so tempting.  Certainly one thing The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson demonstrates is that the fascination of Michael relates to the way he seems to have of looking like a metonym for everything. His demise, and the question of its resistibility or irresistibility, only pose further questions about the distance between serving as an example and being made an example of; in this sense Michael Jackson is the shining example of shining exemplarity itself.

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