Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wounding Words, Words that Wound, and Physical Aggression

Recently, "famed blogger" Perez Hilton had a physical altercation while in Toronto. I am not sure who his attackers were as there are competing stories nor do I write this to condone such violence. However, as I listened to Perez's video discussing the events I was intriqued by the multiple forms of violence being played out. On the one hand Perez was physically assaulted - his body was inflicted with violence via the punches, slaps, kicks of some other or others but on another hand Perez himself assaulted, linguistically, an other via language, his wounding words. Perez recounted these both, noting that violence is never the answer, but positioned violence solely on the side of the physical.

It is at this point that Perez falls short of his analysis. Or more so, provides an analysis that positions him as the victim and the one to be felt for constructing perhaps a binary between the "good" and the "bad"; between the perpetrator and the victim. Now of course there is some importance to this for the trauma of experiencing such violence is something that will take time to understand and bring into symbolization but such will be done through the language that is available to Perez to come to an understanding. He perhaps needs to be the "victim" in order to help himself come to terms with the violence that has been inflicted on his body. BUT, what he fails to address is the violence that his words inflict. He does note that he writes things that anger people or upset them, but he never has physically assaulted anyone or been physically assaulted for saying such things that he says.

Yet, here is where he misses the connection between his words that anger and their wounding capability. He misses the possibility or perhaps wants to deny the possibility that his words that anger some "other" have physical consequences. They are words that inflict bodily harm - just in different ways. They are words that "upset" or "cut" as seen in phrases uttered like "that cut me deep when you said 'x'" or what you said "took the breathe out of me". Words and actions then are not as distinct as often made out to be - a point developed extensively by Judith Butler in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. This is not to argue for a silent society where words are not uttered but to argue for an engagement with the language that is used, the words uttered to think about what possibilities and impossibilites they present.

This, the precarity of language, is something that Perez should perhaps know or have at least experienced in "being" a "gay" man. With epithets like "queer" and "faggot" and "sissy" thrown at many an "out or closeted or assumed" gay or experienced through the narratives told of such subjects, the experience of having the "wind knocked out of you" or feeling "sick" because of what someone has hailed you in such injurious ways, seems rather common. Yet, according to one story, Perez shouted "faggot" at Will.I.Am. Perez used wounding words against another subject and perhaps in doing so created an atmosphere of "threat" where his threat was countered, subverted by another threat, another wounding act - one of a physical nature. Perez then is perhaps not the innocent victim nor the guilty perpetrator but exists between those two positions...where he hailed using a violent word and such hailing provoked a violent act in return.

The fascinating aspect of this all then, as Butler expresses, is how words and wounds are words wound, are embodied, just as physical violence wounds and is embodied. How then are we to interact or "speak" to others? What are the ethical responsibilties to think about the words we use and how such words can wound? How can Perez perhaps fight against the use of hate speech while simultaneously using it? How do both instances expose the vulnerability language places on the human subject?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Assemblages and Identities

Puar, in Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, presents her reader with the notion of an assemblage. She writes that “an assemblage is more attuned to interwoven forces that merge and dissipate time, space, and body against linearity, coherency, and permanency” (212). In presenting this conceptual intervention in Queer Politics and studies, she provides space to engage the tensions between "identity politics" and "queer politics" whereby the identity necessary for identity politics (i.e. rights based movements) is troubled by the contingent, fleeting process of identification. Identity or positionality require a snapshot, a static box that can be held up to fight for a given "x" (i.e. marriage, recogniton). Such notions of identity or position however, as Judith Butler (1990, 1993) has noted, are not natural but constructions constructed throught their repetitions and through such repetition become naturalized or as Puar writes "consolidates the fiction of a seamless stable identity in every space" (212). Identity then demands are coherence over space and inevitably over time...that my identity is the same over space and time. Yet, as queer interventions have argued...such notions of identity are troublesome to those who do not fit into such identity categories or who are violated through such naturalized or privileged identity categories.

Puar's intevention with Assemblage here provokes a recognition and negotiation with the space and time of "being" or "doing" life. She seeks, it appears, to illustrate the problems with identity and positionality and most interestingly theories of intersectionality. It is the assemblage that provides for the engagement with the temporal movement of "doing" life. If one looks at assemblage in art, one realizes that something created through assemblage is dependent on the found objects that are apart of the piece. These found objects are related to the space and time in which the piece is constructed. As a piece of art it can change...its meaning and appearance is dependent on that which is possible in any given time and space. Using this in opposition to identity, an assemblage allows "us" to see the ways in which an engagement with the world and an understanding of that world is related to the time and space in which we are engaged...the exciting although difficult part being an excavation of ways in which such assemblages become naturalized or understood as "identity"...illuminating the tension between identity as a static category and "doing" as a performance assembled from the possibilities possible - be they radical newness, subversive appropriation, or reiteration of norms. It is this tension, the process of "doing" life illustrates how "indeterminancy and determination, change and freeze-framing, go together" (213).

The use of Puar's intervention provides in these queer times, the space to imagine and re-imagine possible ways of "being" or "doing" or "relating" in this world. Yet, it recognizes the complexity of such, refusing to get rid of the necessity of "identity" but recognizing and demanding the recognition of the limitations of such an approach.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.
Puar, J. K. (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Speculative Thoughts: On Marriage and Narrativized Life

In a recent conversation with a friend, he told me that he had gone on a couple of dates with an "ex" - noting it was his first time "recycling". Yet, in this "recycling" he was anxious because the "ex" wanted serious commitment, perhaps even marriage and my friend unsure of how he thought of such a state was unsure of what to do. In talking with this friend, I pondered why it is marriage for the "gays" has become so important wherein it seems so many gays, many of them young, want to get married. Now, before I go any further, I don't want to make it seem that I think such a want is "bad" or that individuals who want marriage to be idiotic. It's not my life so I say let go and say "I Do". But, my interest is in why, why such a state has become so dominant, so desireable?

As I thought about this why, I realized relatively quickly that marriage talk saturates the lives of the young "gays". The younger generation of gays who came out Post-AIDS epidemic of the 80's and early 90's (the epidemic still rages of course in different ways) and did not see the devastation and loss (myself included) grew up hearing the often homophobic rhetoric about AIDS - a hearing that I would argue still haunts young gay men in interesting ways. So they grew up in the epidemic BUT came of age (and came out) with the rhetoric of marriage. In this shift of rhetorics from AIDS to marriage, the structuring of the gay subject has perhaps been altered. One can look at the website for the HRC to see this as it focuses almost entirely on marriage with one having to search for information on HIV/AIDS. So, the rhetorics and narratives visible to gays have moved from one that was focused on rights for sex and discussions on "safe(er)" sex TO one focused on rights of economic importance and recognition as a "normal" subject.

In this shift of rhetoric, the narratives of the gay life have changed or at least the dominant narrative has been changed/challenged for good and bad reasons. I do not mean to imply that there is only one narrative of course but that the narrative of gay life that was dominant pre-marriage debates and for which the marriage debate often rests on has been challenged by the dominant narrative of the marriage drive. By this I mean, the marriage debate often pathologizes the promiscuity of the "gay" community by wanting to show "we" are not all like that, that we can be "normal". This change to marriage is not solely "good" or solely "bad" as it is always in tension with other narratives that vy for intelligibility - which is in a sense what my speculative thoughts are about.

So, what are these two narratives and why might this be of interest? I would argue that the first narrative is a narrative about sex. It is a narrative that positions the "gay" male as a very sexual, promiscuous being. It is this sex, the act, that in a sense originally gave rise to the emergence of the term "homosexual" and created a "new species" as Foucault notes in his first volume on The History of Sexuality. So homosexuality became defined in part by the sexual act and in different ways became pathologized through medical, psychiatric, religious, and legal discourses for not abiding by the normal "heterosexual" way of doing things. Yet, as these new species (homosexuals, sodomites, etc.) developed a community, they began to fight back (i.e. the Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis). This all notably "leading up to" the Stonewall Riots and the fights to have the APA de-pathologize homosexuality from their manual of psychiatric disorders in 1973. It was during this time that the sex wars were going on and fights were being waged for sexual liberation...Yet, these fights faced significant difficulty with the wave of conservativism in the 80's along with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. Yet, for some the fight continued to argue for sexual freedom. Radical political activists and academics made arguments not for a tightening of sexual promiscuity but for smarter promiscuity and challenging the moralisms that limited possibilities.

However, as these radicals aged or died of AIDS themselves, new activists emerged and new issues emerged. The "movement" changed and began to focus on different rights - namely marriage and adoption. The fight became not to create new possibilities of living in the world, but one of getting access to the world that was already possible. The rhetoric became a rhetoric that sought to become "like them" (straight) because "we" are as Sullivan argued "virtually normal". Being gay was no longer about being different with the potential to disrupt the traditional, but became a side bar that should not detract from being able to be seen as, well, normal.

BUT, what does this mean? I think, speculatively, that it means in part that the gay subject is being conditioned to want to be seen as normal and that "normal" is related to the rhetoric of gay rights - a rhetoric that currently argues for marriage and that through marriage "I" can be seen as not sick, as not pathological, but as a moral, upstanding citizen just like my parents before me. I can create the image of the family that I came from, it is just an image that is slightly different but not vastly for "I" can still strive and achieve the white picket fence and children. I can be a part of the capitalist economic machine that the promiscuous "gay" was a challenge to in some regards.

So, if I return to the beginning of my post...I want to speculate that the drive to be married is not simply an individual wish, but a wish that is in part structured by the discourses that pervasively constrain the possible lives we have access to. Previously, the gay life was perhaps constrained to the sexual, struggling to find more...but now that struggle has placed a shadow on other possibilities. If one wants to fit in and be intelligible, to not have to explain or argue for one's way of simply has to abide by the dominant modes of living, of doing life, which is dominated by marriage speak. "I" want to get married and settle down because it is easier, it requires less stress, less work...not in that being married or committed is simple and stress free...but that it is a different kind of stress that exists within the is not a stress or anxiety that is public as "I" must justify my life or ways of doing life because they are not "normal" or "traditional". This is obviously more complicated since a relationship and its anxieties are still "public" and never solely private...but the dynamics of the private/public are different.

Basically...I suppose my interest in this is how the narratives, the stories we think about telling in our lives are constrained, as they must always be, by the dominant stories we are told. The process then is excavating these narratives to find out other possibilities that lie "beneath" to imagine a story line that is different, livable, and not solely survivable but thrivable.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Shame is the Name of the Game

The concept of shame is a concept that has arguably had a strong impact on communities of individuals that are “different” and for the communities for which these “different” communities are defined against. These communities of “difference” are “shamed” for not being normal, for being different, for not following the straight and narrow by which the “normal” communities define themselves. Politically such communities of difference can unite and fight back to show that “they” are not abnormal, but in actuality…to borrow from Andrew Sullivan “virtually normal”…“we are just like you”. These communities, in making this claim, seek legitimation, recognition, and rights – important things indeed. Yet, in making this claim towards normalcy, what is given up? What is lost when communities or the voices that can speak for a community displace the “negative” the “shameful” in order to be like the rest, to be recognized as, in part, human?

As the “gay” community celebrates the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots – for all intensive purposes the event that is considered to have started the modern gay rights movement – I want to think about the negative, the shameful and how in displacing such things, something is lost. As the trannies and queens of Stonewall fought back, harkening in the gay rights movement, so the story goes…Pride set in. It was with Pride gays, lesbians, and the rest of the gang could march down the streets, assert their rights, fight for those rights, and be recognized, at least by some, as subjects. Yet, as the movement continued, this Pride arguably began to displace some of the shameful antics of those “queers” so that the others might fit in and get their piece of the American Pie. I was reminded in a recent interview of Edmund White in Out that the movement has changed drastically from the days of Stonewall. White notes that the leaders of the movement have shifted from the “political radicals” to the “stuffy middle class gays”. And it is arguably these “middle-class gays” that now determine the focus of the movement – namely marriage and adoption rights. Yet, in fighting for these “rights”, other issues are left untouched, except by those political radicals still out there. And in this, those who started the movement, those who were the one’s most often violated, most often visible again have taken the backseat. The queens that threw the first heel, the trannies and street trash that made up much of the Stonewall crowd are still waiting for their turn, still living their “shameful” ways…while the “stuffy” gays buff up their “rights” to be like, well to be normal.

I was reminded of all this recently when attending a Pride celebration with a friend. This friend had never been to a Pride celebration before and in many ways was rather surprised at the event…the costumes, the skin showing, the public intimacy, the “freaks”…were all a bit much for him, perhaps even making him uncomfortable as we sought refuge in a trendy sushi bar whose clientele was much more middle to upper class, and arguably quite white. However, I do not want this to accuse him as an individual for this discomfort, to psychologize him and his unease because this was not about him as an individual but about the bigger issues and the tensions between Pride and shame. Having seen only the “good” gays represented in television and the “bad” gays either made invisible or pathologized and shown to not be “representative” of the “community”, it makes sense that Pride festivals for many “gays” are uncomfortable because everyone and everything comes out of the woodwork. The space of Pride is rather queer…it is not “straight”, it is strange and in such strangeness it is rather fleeting…but a mere day when “I” can do things in public I cannot do in most other “spaces”. Yet, back to the discomfort and how such discomfort seems to emerge when the “good gays” see that which is considered shameful, excessive, bad taste…causing the Pride celebration to become splintered and/or at times “cleaned” up to become a “family” event.

The queer space of Pride struggles with itself as different bodies seek different things…as some bodies seek to show the “good” side of things, the “family friendliness” of the gays while others seek to disrupt these notions, to challenge the normative family to expose, to play with something different…leaving me to ask…Why must Pride be a family event? Why must “we” cater to the concept of the, I would argue “straight family” to celebrate Pride or to be a legitimate public event? One could feasibly think about different concepts of the family, often created by different facets of the “gay” community and how perhaps these families are the ones that deserve to have space, to have an event catered toward them that is in a public space? What would it mean to argue for the legitimacy of these “families” or does arguing for such legitimacy rely on the normative structures, forcing these “queer” family structures to become “normalized”?
I ask…Since the “straight” family has so often abused the “gay” body by kicking them to the streets, by sending them to therapy…why not celebrate the families that the “gays” create, the houses, the connections that are made as the abused bodies of many gays repair their wounds, their losses, not to be victims of the family…but as creators of new families…of families chosen, not born into? And in some cases, families that are “blood” related with the advent of HIV/AIDS and the family tree one could feasibly construct with the line by which one’s infection has followed…(see my earlier post of HIV/AIDS and Family bloodlines)

For more interesting work on Shame see:
Leo Bersani. Intimacies. 2008 (see also Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave” 1988)
Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. 2004
David Halperin. What do Gay Men Want: An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity. 2007.
Heather Love. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. 2009.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Notes from the Closet

With discussion about sexuality, in particular homosexuality, comes, it seems, the discussion about the closet…for the story goes that if one is not of the hetero variety that one must “come out” of the closet as something else – the “homo” variety. Those who do not come out are often called “closeted” or “closet-cases” or as suffering from “internalized homophobia” or are “outed” by some other. Yet, it is this concept of the closet that I want to challenge. I have been asked, as a “gay” man, about the closet many times…when did I come out?…who am I out to?…what was it like?…etc. Many a “gay” person will probably relate to these questions as will many a “straight” person. Yet, as I think about my experience with the closet, I become a little disturbed because for the longest time, I never realized there was such a thing – a closet that is. It was not until I was in college that I was asked to “come out” and when I was asked this, I was a bit confused. What was it that I was coming out of and how long have I been “in” whatever it is that I need to “come out” of?

I, of course, realized what it was that I needed to come out of…it was this closet…and not the one that I came out of daily dressed to impress…although my “dressing to impress” was part of the reason I “needed” to “come out” of this new closet I was suddenly finding myself in. So, I learned that I needed to come out of this closet in college and I did as I was told. I came out. Except each time I came out, the response I received was “yeah, we know”, or “finally”, or as my mother said “Adam, I’m your mother, I’ve always known”. Now, I don’t want to get into a conversation about the origins of sexuality in terms of whether and how my “mom” always knew…but I do want to get into the closet or the mentality of the closet to see what it is about. Why was it that I needed to come out as something that everyone I came out to already I knew I “was”? Was it some strange ritual that I was in need of being a part of? Was it for humorous reasons? Was it a part of becoming a subject of a particular kind – a gay kind perhaps…a gay subject? Was it to make “them” comfortable with my “I” so that they could “know” me better…even if I already “knew” myself?

I am not sure why it was I needed to come out…except perhaps to fulfill the wishes of those around me who thought I should “come out” because that is what people hear gay people, especially gay kids are in need of – stepping out of the closet. Psychologists, counselors, health educators, all say my kind should do it…come out and be healthy and “find myself” which I respond…”

Excuse me? Find myself? I thought I had until I found out that I was trapped in some closet that I needed to escape from…dressed to impress of course…in order to finally know myself…even though I knew myself already as much as one can ever “know” oneself as one is continually finding oneself through different, new experiences, different “doings” in the world.

So, what is this closet then that I need to come out of? As I’ve noted before, I never had a closet until I was surrounded by people who knew of such a closet and decided that I was in it. No one ever told me the closet existed before I went to college…until college I was happy…I was content…I had friends…I had fun…I had crushes on boys…but then I learned that I was trapped in a closet and had to do battle with the closet door to release myself from some space that didn’t allow me to be, well, me. So, I did it…I came out. I said the words that I was supposed to say “I’m gay” and I perhaps felt better because I was supposed to…one is supposed to be relieved when one “comes out” as any good “counselor” or “psychologist” will tell you…but now I don’t know why I did it. Why did I come out of some closet I had never realized I was in? Was it a joke? Was I just playing along with this closet talk to be intelligible to others? To make the joke work? To make my body readable?

The closet, after all, only exists if someone says it does and in saying so makes it something that can be “read”. It is a space seemingly constructed by those who don’t have to come out of a closet (straight people) or those who are already out of the closet (out gays) for those who are thought to be oppressed and in need of liberation from this closet constructed by people who the person supposedly in the closet doesn’t even know…Aye yi yi…what is this fucking closet. It is obviously a heterosexual construct since “they” and yes I generalize, don’t have to come out. Yet, it is obviously also a homophobic construct that seeks to keep the gay kid out of sight and out of mind, to maintain the illusion of the heterosexual matrix.

But…is it also a homo-normative construct…one that in a sense comes to define what a “gay” subject is, what a normal gay subject is? With the advent of people outing others, i.e. Perez Hilton, has the closet become one of the defining features of how a normal, good, gay subject comes into existence…by coming out of the closet that previous generations had to come out of…and for which I am thankful for as it allows me to write and do the things I do. However, as discourses change, does the closet narrative need to be re-thought? Challenged? Parodied? And how?

I am sure the closet is a bit of all of these and more…I am sure I came out of it because I was around people that told me such a mythical place existed. They were told it existed and believed it existed so they told me it existed and told me that I needed to leave such a mythical place because it was not a healthy place…it was a place of pain, of hidden sorrows, of invisibility, of myths. But, I was never invisible or in pain or in any more sorrow than the next high school student. I was never in this mythical closet until someone placed me there and forced me to come out of it to be legitimate, to be a true gay person who did that which any good “gay” or “healthy” gay is meant to do…Come out and be a “role” model.

But, I don’t come out anymore…it is way to exhausting because I was told that I was ‘always’ in the closet, in constant need to “come out” or choose when and when not to come out. So in such exhaustion… I don’t come out anymore or at least not as often as before – we all fall back into bad habits sometimes. I don’t do that strange ritual anymore because this whole closet business is just too much for me. It is too mythical and I love me a good myth so, that says a lot. I don’t come out because I don’t believe I am “in” anything any more than anyone else is “in” anything and in the need of “coming out” of that thing.

Yet, curiously in writing about not coming out, I perform the process of outing myself. I out myself as someone who is supposed to by many standards be one that comes out…and in saying that I understand I am supposed to come out, but I don’t buy into that concept so I am not going to do it…I, inevitable out myself and making this whole argument a flippin’ waste of time because I am trapped in a closet I don’t believe in nor a closet I want to come out of, but a closet I come out of in saying I am not coming out of it…trapped in the closet narrative.

Oh, for the love of something pretty…why oh why does this closet exist?

See Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet for a more detailed and exciting engagement with the closet.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In Defense of Barbie

There are many things in children’s “culture” that are problematized and demonized for being bad influences…of ruining children’s innocence and forcing them into adult roles. Arguably, one of the most demonized child toys though, in my opinion is that of Barbie – that beautiful plastic woman with proportions that are impossible to have – literally. This Barbie character in her whiteness, blondeness, and over the years, capacity for befriending multicultural friends, focuses too much on beauty, too much on consumerism, too much on those things that any good “social justice” martyr with feminist beliefs just must oppose. Barbie has been manipulated to believe she must be beautiful, she has tokenized her friends to make money, she has ruined little girls abilities to be more than Barbie herself can be. She has bought into buying pleasure, feeling good because of material purchases. Barbie is no different than the whore that she was in part birthed from…for she, as Shirley Steinberg has pointed out, continues to whore herself out to the corporations.

However, since I am not a “social justice” martyr (anymore) with rather queer feminist tendencies, I want to make an argument for Barbie in all her beauty – I write then, in defense of Barbie. I do this because Barbie is positioned in a place of shame, she is abject to many “liberal” minded people as well as many “conservative” minded people. She is their “Other” who they can blame for the self-esteem issues and eating disorders in our young people. Of course ignoring that anorexics never have large breasts so to those that argue that Barbie is anorexic, and promotes anorexia in girls, I ask what vision of anorexia are you working from.

But, I rather like being in the place of shame, of the abject, to illustrate that it is a livable place, a possible life, a place that can be read for things occluded by most shaming readings.

Barbie – she comes in many different costumes.
Barbie – she once thought “math was hard”.
Barbie – the one with that pink corvette.
Barbie – the one with all that anyone needs to be cool.
Barbie – the one with the man who has a mound of flesh.

But Barbie for me was more than this. Barbie was, like Whitney, my girl. I played with her as a little boy, of course always through my sister since I couldn’t just play with Barbie by myself (unless I did it sneakily) because that is not what little “boys” do. Barbie for me then was the possibility of leaving small town Iowa and being fabulous, of being able to explore and dress, and drive those things that I couldn’t explore, wear, or drive in the “normal” world I lived in. Barbie may have taught my sister that she needed big boobs and a teeny-tiny waist (of which my sister does not have), but Barbie taught me that one could be happy in the “confines” of the feminine, one could enjoy the masquerade that is femininity, and make billions doing it. She taught me the importance, the necessity of aesthetics. She may have whored herself out to the corporate “Man” but she did it laughing all the way to the bank AND in doing so could act in any way her possessor wanted her to – be that as a happy hetero, a lipstick lez, or a bitchin’ CEO. Barbie taught me more than Ken ever could that in this world we can create ourselves, we can change our outfits and try something new…we can be a teacher, a nurse, an airline stewardess, we can think math is hard and still look fabulous, still survive in this world where math is seen as more important than fashion – as if fashion doesn’t require math.

Yet, I recognize that this process of creating the self is more than just putting on an outfit, that such performativity is constrained by the reiterative practices that become naturalized – which is part of the problem with Barbie as a static concept because she only has so many possibilities to perform. So, yes, Barbie’s options are limited by the evil of Mattel and what Mattel allows Barbie to be sold as (i.e. a nurse but not a drug pusher)…but Mattel does not control the ways in which children, in this instance me, played with Barbie. Barbie, to draw from Foucault, is freeer than we feel. She can be anything and we don’t need Mattel to make her so – we can make her so ourselves. I can make Barbie a philosopher like my academic crush Judith, I can make Barbie an actress like Jodie…I can do these things, I can make Barbie anything if my imagination is allowed to explore and make Barbie something I think Barbie could be.

Without Barbie, I would have been stuck with Joe, the violent one – not the plumber and he can’t change his clothes for real men are not sissy clothes changers and well I am not a real man. With Barbie…I can use her nurse costume and still have Barbie perform the role of the drug pusher since as a nurse she has the access. I can. I can I tell you. And in doing this with Barbie, which is “easier” to do than to do in “reality” then I can see these ideas as possibilities, as fictions that can create a reality that I imagine, that I want to experience when I am no longer child, but “adult” given opportunities to explore that which has been “occluded” from my child-eyes.
Barbie, then, provided a place to imagine the aesthetics of life, of fashion, of putting outfits together, and the possibilities of living, in an environment that was constraining. Yes, for some this is just the emergence and continuance of capitalism and consumption…but we cannot but operate within this system of capitalism. We cannot get out of it, for to try to get out of it would probably be illegal for to not be in this system would require so many fundamental changes in how one lived and operated in a society that was capitalistic.

Of course it is easy to critique those who buy excessive clothes and engage in what is positioned as “frivolous” (as I myself have done), but we are all implicated – “you” just make yourself feel better by making “me” your other, by making “me” less than “you” because you are less “capitalistic” than I. But I don’t like capitalism, I just like fashion, it is a part of life that brings me pleasure, not because I need clothes to make me feel “cool” or “pretty” but because they help me perform, they help me be me in whatever way I want to be “me” when I put on whatever it is I put on – knowing that how such clothes are read is never up to me entirely.

What then is wrong with Barbie? Is the problem with Barbie not Barbie herself but with our own inability to accept that Barbie is a person-doll, a possibility that girls, boys, boy-girls, girl-boys, sissys, punks, faggots, dykes, and others can look to and imagine a life that they do not have access to? Does Barbie, give access to the feminine, so often degraded and argued against for its limitations, actually broaden the possibilities of the feminine – of granting access to the feminine especially for those not “female” bodied? At the end of the day, if a woman, a girl, a drag queen, a trans person, a gender queer, a boy with a fetish uses Barbie to make life pleasurable within the imagination, what right do we have to critique Barbie and tell her that she is bad, that we will not buy her for our children because she, from our own projections, scares us – scares us that our children may choose a life we didn’t choose, a life we disparaged against, a life we didn’t want to live, or a life we always wanted to live but never could. By limiting our children’s access to such a cultural icon, this icon of problematic femininity, do we disparage this form of the feminine and colonize our children to a life we believe they should have NOT the life they could make themselves, like an artist makes a piece of art? Is the critique of Barbie more often about not wanting to grant children access to that vision of femininity that has been seen as passive, as superficial, as easy to manipulate and use RATHER than showing that not granting access to those forms of femininity re-pathologize such femininity as lesser, as not worthy of “positive” evaluations, as not worthy of representation anymore?

So, I say buy me a Barbie, buy me that most feminine of all toys, that doll that performs and perhaps helped construct the feminine ideal and let me imagine the beauty of that doll, of the possibilities that this abjected, shamed doll can provide. Buy me Barbie, by me her little sister doll Bratz, buy me these dolls that are “sexualized,” “skanky,” “slutty,” and “inappropriate” for little girls, boys, bois, gurls and I will show you the possibilities that skanks, sluts, and anything shameful can create possible lives and expose the anxieties of adults around childhood and children in relation to sexuality and the “passive” feminine…or if I cannot I will at least have a new Barbie that you purchased in this capitalistic system for me…

Monday, June 1, 2009

On Gayness

I was recently asked to engage a certain question...a question that I would "like" because of my enjoyment of so-called "wishy washy, non-quantitative (hence [my] hatred for statistics and deficiency in arguing an opponents' points directly, concisely and effectively), "let me tell you about my feelings" pop psychology kinds of topics". [Wow] Of course, such an assessment positioning the quantitative as more solid and less wishy-washy is comical to me since the quantitative still relies on the messiness of "words" or "language" to makes its just currently has a privileged place in most dominant discourses and perhaps suffers from some delusions about its can read the philosophy of science and other historical investigations of science as a discourse for more on this.

But, besides that, I would like to say two more things before I move to my wishy-washy answer...1) I don't hate statistics, I just don't use them. I find other means of rhetorical arguments more enjoyable and thus engage them. 2) In order to argue an opponents points I have to 1) have a legitimate argument to engage in and 2) be able to engage such a debate on my terms, not simply on my opponents terms which would obviously mess up notions of effectiveness, conciseness, and directness since we would both have different criteria by which to judge arguments...BUT

The question I was asked to speak to, in part because of my intelligence I imagine is as follows...

Is sexual orientation just what a person is attracted to ? Or, does it shape our personalities from a biological standpoint, considering that fMRI scans show that the gay male and hetero male brains are different.

An interesting question as it positions sexuality as something that can seemingly 1) be understood completely by the sciences and 2) relies on two discourses from my read - that of psychology (individual attraction) and biology (physical makeup). Since I am neither a psychologist nor a biologist, I do not engage this question from either perspective, although note that these two discourses have a rather immense power in how sexuality is understood/conceptualized in modernity.

Rather, what I find more fascinating is the very construction of sexuality historically. How it came to be that "gay" and "straight" men (and women) existed as such. When did it become possible to identify as a "gay" man, to "be" gay rather than partake in acts with bodies with similar "equipment". One can look at various histories of sexuality for this contested terrain - my go to would be that of Michel Foucault. My interests would also extend into thinking about how different discourses, including the sciences, have at times pathologized the "non-heterosexual" body while simultaneously such "non-hetero" bodies have resisted such pathologization (i.e. fighting the APA to have homosexuality removed from the DSM) but also relied on the sciences to "claim" legitimacy in the "rights" based movement (i.e. if it is genetic, then it is "natural" and we deserve to be human). One can look at the history of the modern "gay" movement for different examples of this, along with the work of various Queer Theorists (i.e. Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, David Halperin) for engagements with discourses and sexuality.

Yet, let me ponder for a second on the question asked of me...the question uses the fMRI as evidence that there is a difference between the "gay" and "straight" male. My question would be...what is the exact evidence and who was included in the sample? Since I don't have access to the actual statistics, I can't fully respond to the statistical analysis done but will ask some broad questions. Did the evidence divide neatly into two camps (all gay men's brains were the same and all straight men's were the same) or is there some overlap whereby it is not so neatly divided (I imagine it is the latter)? As for the sample, were these men self-identified as "straight" and "gay"? What about straight men who have sex with men, but are not gay? What about gay men who don't have sex with men? What about bisexual men? Or men who never come out as gay? Does this research require participants to "identify" in only the way the researchers conceptualize sexual orientation? If so, what does it mean to force someone to "identify" as something they may not actually identify as outside of the research space?

Finally, I will ask how do we know that the differences found in the fMRI are due to sexual orientation? If we, as humans, are looking at the images of brains, we makes sense of those images by interpreting them with the language we have access to at the time of looking. So, setting the research up to look at sexual orientation occludes other possible interpretations since we enter the research with sexual orientation as our "frame".

So, sexuality is could be caused by any number of things, it is never "just" anything. This (sexuality's cause), in my opinion does not matter. An individual who is "gay" does not need to justify their "life" using science (nature) or upbringing (nurture) to be seen as a legitimate human being that deserves rights. Nor should an individual be limited or violated should he/she/ze choose to imagine a life that is not defined by the discourses of sexuality currently dominant in contemporary Western thought (i.e. gay/straight binary). Doing so, making such things possible, is more complicated though as it requires critical resistance to the ways in which such issues are "framed" for us by various discourses (science, religion, psychology, law, education) and a movement away from identity based politics to a politics based on coalition/alliance.