Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sex Tours and Spanking

Chicago is home to supposedly the only sex tour in the United States. And since I think sex is quite interesting for a variety of reasons - personal, political, philosophical, and ethical - and am new to Chicago, it seemed appropriate to go on such a tour. I was quite excited by the prospect of such a tour. I anxiously awaited its arrival and could not believe when the day finally arrived. I, of course, was a bit concerned that it would be cheesy and sanitized, but I let go of my concerns and toured the history of sex in Chicago.

I was not that impressed by the tour. I was, in fact, more disappointed in the tour than I was impressed...but this, I did not fully realize until after the tour ended and I discussed it with others. Yet, the tour was not a complete waste. I learned where the Leather Archive and Museum is located and was able to talk with Mistress Xena, a professional dominatrix, and see her BDSM dungeon. As a side note, in the dungeon, a volunteer was requested to illustrate how a particular piece of equipment worked. Since I cannot handle the awkward tension when such a request is made, I raised my hand and was to my surprise spanked by a professional dominatrix...which may potentially be the highlight of my time in Chicago.

Back to the tour though. I was disappointed in the tour because it seemed to rely on the glitz and glamor of being a "sex tour" without having much substance beyond this. The tour guides clearly knew what they were talking about (e.g. the history of prostitution in Chicago) and were practicing members in different sexual subcultures. They practiced what they preached. However, there is a balance that in my opinion needs to be struck in such instances so that the tour does not become personal story time about one's own sexual practices...after all I did not pay the money I paid to simply hear about someone else's sexcapades nor feel like it is a competition to see who is the "kinkiest" person...after all, fetishes abound and one could argue it's all a fetish. We all choose particular things to focus on - some are just seen as more "normal" than others - but all sexual desires, from "kinky" to "vanilla," are fetishistic.

Yet, this is a minor concern and a preference. My larger concern is what felt to me to be mild misogyny on the part of one of the tour guides. To some, it may seem odd on a tour that requires open-mindedness that misogyny might rear its head, but with the complexity of sexuality and its history such is perhaps not that strange. Here is where I saw misogyny rear its head. On the tour, we played a game called "Spot the Ho" where we were supposed to point out prostitutes. It seemed problematic to me that the guide would ask us to "Spot the Ho" - a game that singles out a population that is already ridiculed and "spotted out" - on a tour where we are supposed to be open-minded about sexual possibilities.

However of course, since it seemed rude to point and yell "there's a prostitute" we were to instead yell "CVS" which stood for "Common Variety Skank." The ingenuity of CVS is not lost...I do have a sense of humor. And I am not sure how the tour guide was using such terminology - so my accusation of the guide being a misogynist is perhaps a bit "early". Yet, since sex - especially prostitution and particular sexual subcultures - is so complicated, it seemed to me rather problematic to not at least footnote the ways in which the tour guide is using such terms (i.e. I am using the term "Ho" in reverence). Such a move, seems to me to then at least allow for a pause and for the participants to think about why reverence should be given to "ho's" or "skanks." To note that, we are spotting hos not to ridicule them and win a free ghost tour, but to make them visible, to see them as persons, persons who deserve respect and legal protections carries a drastically different purpose and feeling. It does not fall into the pointing prostitutes already experience, but into a category where such pointing might fleetingly be seen as a point that says "I see you, I recognize you, I respect you." Of course, how others seeing the pointing complicates this and gets us into bigger issues about perception, intention, and meaning...but I will not go there.

Now of course this may seem minimal and a bit idealistic...I am a philosopher though and I like to think about the symbolic meanings and possibilities. But what furthered my concern was the guide discussing how he knew more high-end call girls - individuals who clearly would not be victim to the came of "Spot the Ho." He did not, at least how he discussed it, know or talk to a lot of street walkers. I wonder then, would he play this game if he knew he might be pointing and inevitably laughing (because that is what we did when we first learned about the game) at friends or acquaintances?

Was the sex tour then merely a story telling about the guide's sex life? Was it what it's description said it would be? I think it was a combination of both...it bordered on being more glitz than substance. Yet, sometimes glitz is good so I don't want to downplay it. But the tour seemingly failed at providing depth and thoughtful engagement with a complicated subject matter. It at times seemingly maintained the problematic gaze at the "freakish sexual other" that it sought to challenge by calling for open-mindedness. But, of course such things happen. We are not immune to falling into such norms...the task though is to recognize it and through critique open up possible ways of touring sex without making it a tourist trap.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Queertopia: A Strange Place

What is queertopia? Can such a place exist? And what is its future? Who is in such a place? And who is part of such a future, a rather queer future - perhaps? These are questions that are raised in a show I recently saw entitled Queertopia. According to the description of the play it is "based on true stories" that are "youth-driven oral histories" that "investigate[s] violence within and against the LGBTQA communities in America while imagining and performing a future just beyond our grasp." It is a show, an organic show whose script, as the cast discussed in the talk-back after the show, is constantly evolving and changing. It tells stories of youth, different kinds of youth, queer in different ways, but in such stories there emerges a haunting of the past - a past that haunts the lives of LGBTQA persons. Yet, such haunting propels forward uncharted possibilities not seen in the show itself, but imagined in the time and space after the show ends and the dance party begins. It is a play between the past, the present (as performed), and the future always "a day away" or "just beyond our grasp".

Within the show and perhaps the future it imagines, performance and dance become the modes not only of cathartic release, but of imagination, of not thinking about the real, but of thinking about the imaginary - about images that could someday be a part of the real images we see in our lives. It is a reach for, a dreaming of a queertopia.

Within the show, space and time interact..space is changed over time and time impacts what space is available and how such space is seen. And a part of this dynamic relates to the bodies involved in such space and time. How are bodies oriented within the space and time and what amount of time does it take to orient bodies in particular ways within a space? How do the stories of the characters illuminate different paths for "queer" bodies and different responses to the violence of existence?

But back to the concept of queertopia...

I think it is necessary to begin in the present thinking about queertopia by looking backwards to the past to the etymology of what seem to be important terms - namely utopia, dystopia, and then finally the etymology of the queer in queertopia. Utopia is a neologism, first used in Sir Thomas More's book Utopia (1516). It emerges from Greek to mean broadly "good place." More used the term allegorically, noting such a place could not actually exist, but imagining such a place offers potential critical insights into possibility. Dystopia, a modification of utopia, is according to its etymology, first uttered by John Stuart Mill in 1868 in a speech in the British House of Commons. It means broadly a "bad or ill place." Utopia is founded on the "good life" while dystopia is its negative counterpart, a utopia with a problem. So, what about queertopia? I had not heard of the concept "queertopia" until this show...so let's look to the etymology of queer to begin an understanding of such a concept. Queer means "strange" or "peculiar" or "eccetric;" "off-center" or "oblique". And in the 20th century becomes associated with (homo)sexuality - an association that cannot be avoided with the utterance of "queer" as noted queer theorist Eve Sedgwick notes in Tendencies. So a queertopia is a strange or peculiar place, but a strange and peculiar place that is intimately connected with sexuality - particularly non-normative sexualities. It is perhaps a space and time where non-normative sexualities exist in a different paradigm BUT is neither good nor bad, it is peculiar...it is ambivalent about good and bad.

It is this ambivalence of the queertopia that I find quite useful and quite well engaged in the show. Depending on how one might read "queertopia" there are perhaps two immediate responses. One might imagine the show as playing with the notion of utopia - providing an overly positive spectacle of same-sex lovin'...one that imagines a world without violence, filled instead with love and gaiety. Or, one might imagine the show as playing with the notion of dystopia - imagining a future that is filled with violence, with queer bashing in order to provoke rage and calls for queer resistance. Both readings while somewhat present in the show, are inadequate for what happens. Instead, the viewer gets a merging of these two and in such a merging the show engages ambivalence where the good and the bad, the right and the wrong become much more complicated. The "queer bodies" are not merely victims, but also violators. Violence is not only inflicted from the outside, in BUT also from the inside out as the psychic wounds and the social wounds dance to produce the queer subjects.

And it is this production - both the literal production of the show and the metaphorical production of the lives such a show re-presents - that creates the queertopia. A space, a place and therefore a time somewhere and nowhere fleetingly showing the world we live in, the world as it once was, and how the world might be always struggling with the violence of existence and the (in)ability to escape such violence. This (in)ability both opens up the space to counter violence (an ethics of non-violence) while recognizing the presence of violence in the constitution of the human - we are violated by coming into existence (e.g. through naming, through being slapped on the butt by the doctor, or having our sex determined for us in the case of intersex babies). We cannot become subjects, we cannot become bodies, without violence but as Judith Butler argues "it is precisely because one is formed through violence, the responsibility not to repeat the violence of one's formation is all the more pressing and important" (2009, 167).

Lady Gaga: The Politics of Artifice and the Ethics of Gaga

It seems that the world has fallen for Gaga - some have fallen in love with her, some have fallen out of love with her, some are falling trying to grasp who or what she is. And in recent weeks, the Gaga has made significant appearances in the New York Times. Feminist Philosophy Nancy Bauer in "Lady Power" (20 June 2010) takes up the cultural phenomena of Gaga in relation to feminism - noting that one must only look to Gaga to get the "bead on feminism." In Bauer's astute reading of Gaga, she notes that Gaga "keeps us guessing about who she, as a woman, is" because for Gaga "woman is a matter of artifice, of artful self-presentation." Bauer's assessment of Gaga, through a reading of Beauvoir, is ambivalent concluding "Lady Gaga and her shotgun companions should not be seen as barreling down the road of bad faith. But neither are they living in a world in which their acts of self-expression or self-empowerment are distinguishable, even in theory, from acts of self-objectification." From Bauer's reading, we cannot be sure of not only who Gaga is (a part of Gaga's style) but also what Gaga means for gender. Does she disrupt gender norms by exposing them as artifice or does she re-entrench such norms? Or does she do both and more, depending on the space/time in which any given individual sees a Gaga performance?

Caramanica in his New York Times article (22, July 2010) "Girl Pop's Lady Gaga Makeover" looks at Gaga's influence on contemporary "Girl Pop" and its move away from the images of the Girl Power of Lilith Fair. It seems in his reading that there is something much more authentic in the granola, confessional style of Lilith Fair that has been lost to the "post-absurdist sexual theatre" of Gaga (taken up in the work of Katy Perry, Kesha, Beyonce, and Nicki Minaj). Gaga's style and those influenced by her artificial, inventive, and aesthetic imaginations focuses not on political critiques around female sexuality (seen in Madonna's early work) but rather focuses on "distraction as an end itself." For him, Gaga's emphasis on the performance, on the self-styling of the artist through her art where her art is her and she is her art is uncomfortable for it fails to show that there is someone, underneath the costumes that is Lady Gaga. Caramanica seeks a confession from Gaga, a confession of her origins, of her self, of who she is.

I find something strange with these recent engagements with Lady Gaga. It seems strange to me that there is this desire for Gaga to be pinned down, to be defined and her artifice finally shown as being truly artifice with a "living, breathing creature beneath." I find this call strange for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a desire that imposes itself on Lady Gaga..."you must confess who you are because in such a confession, you will be intelligible to me. I will finally know you. Your confession will allow me to finally see who you are." Such a confessional mode while allowing "me" to see Gaga, in itself changes Gaga though. It forces her to tell a story she is not wanting or willing to tell about herself. It, in my reading, negates the challenges she poses to notions of identity (gender, sexual, political). Gaga refuses to identify most of the time, although at times makes such a move to allow the play to continue - to keep us guessing and to keep others playing. Yet, her challenges are not mere "distractions" or rather she uses these distractions to open up the imaginary of what one can be or what the world itself could do in its constant re-emergence. She asks us, allows us, makes it possible for us, to get lost in the pastiche of worlds she creates - worlds that are not all rosy but encounter the strange, the horrific, the monstrous and illuminate the beauty of such perversities.

Second, such a call, such a desire, fails to recognize the possibilities in Gaga's artifice. Gaga does not define what woman is nor man. She does not seek to limit what women or men can be and she even engages the idea that persons are objects and in being such an object can find pleasure (a reason I think the S/M imagery plays a role in numerous videos). Gaga does not make nice, but neither does she make mean. Rather, she makes ethics. Ethics is a part of her project and her ethics is not simple. Relations between beings and perhaps even between things are complicated by the artificial, by the artifice. What stories might one tell and how do such stories open up possibilities while also, as they must limiting what stories can be told. Caramanica notes this, perhaps unknowingly, when he criticizes Gaga's images as becoming a "mite too ideological." While I do not oft use the word ideological - I think his comment illuminates the Gaga does not move to far out of a particular imaginary position. She has her limitations BUT such limitations are not a counterpoint to her politics, showing how she fails...but rather such limitations illustrate that she does not operate outside of the world she seeks to expand. Gaga does not invent, she re-invents. She pays homage to (e.g. Warhol, Madonna) and in paying homage, she re-invents, she creates anew. She is not original because there is no such thing nor is she simply mimicking her predecessors. She is re-performing, re-telling, and as such re-creating stories that we might tell about ourselves.

And, it is this that illuminates Gaga's ethics - Gaga seeks to tell stories and open up the telling of stories that create a world for monsters that is based in love. She tells a story of love using the imagery of monsters, rarely associated with love, in order to allow the monstrous to love itself and to love others. This might be seen poignantly in her recent response to the Westboro Baptist Church's protest where she told her monsters "Although I respect and do not judge anyone for their personal views on any politics or religion, this group in particular to me is violent and dangerous. I wanted to make my fans aware of my views on how to approach, or rather not approach, these kinds of hate activists." Gaga did not seek violent reactions, but sought inaction against the protesters - allowing them to "be" outside - while inside love won out and the monsters sang.

Such love though is not sentimental...it is artificial...it does not seek to be authentic or even real because, once it becomes those things, it loses its critical capacity in the imaginary. And to lose the imaginary is to lose the potential to re-create the real, to recreate the images that are possible in the real world.