Archive for the ‘TC’ Category

Start With This

March 11, 2008

I have often wondered what would have happened if Queer Theory had started with Moby Dick instead of “Billy Budd.” I am referring to Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, which is about how important the homo/hetero binary has always been to Western culture; to what counts as knowledge; to the way in writers use marginal comments to highlight the non-dit that is pretty much an open secret.

As a novel, Moby Dick is a spectacular failure. It’s still one of my favorite things to read. It has none of the subtlety of “Billy Bud,” which is about where loneliness and sexuality intersect. Was Sedgwick’s decision to focus on what goes on “between-the-lines” an effort to show what close-reading can pull out? Was her book a gambit towards critical virtuosity? Were critics of the era (whom she has called “paranoid” elsewhere), simply uninterested in blatantly utopian and sexual passages, such as the following from the chapter “Squeeze of the Hand”:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, –Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!

My impressions of the critical world are really defined by my experience of graduate school. When I was a student (please note that it was a very conservative department where I was, for most of the time, the only openly gay male in the department — among either faculty or students … I know! who ever heard of a straight English professor? There was one old gay guy, but apparently he wasn’t very “out” since another prof — one who physically resembled Krusty the Clown — always insisted he and his boyfriend were “bachelors”), I felt like Queer Theory had gained some acceptance inasmuch that it allowed critics to destabilize established notions of sexual normativity. But Sedgwick’s observations were often misused as a relativistic bludgeon against anyone who ever noticed any sex going on in the books. It didn’t help that my Tub of Love, a leading lesbian literary critic, wrote a whole book about lesbianism where no sex, just barometers, appeared. Sure, there are some people who write about “flapping vaginas” in Eighteenth Century literature, and that kind of thing was made possible with a “work-around” Queer Theory. Of the holy trinity, Leo Bersani, Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler, only Bersani was ever willing to discuss sex; including a great moment on the epistemology of rimming.

Still, this didn’t really translate well to the classroom where all anyone knew about homosexuality was the closet. I was practically lynched once for suggesting that maybe, maybe, when Julian of Norwich was rubbing her holy hazel nut and experiencing the rapture something masturbatory might be going on. OK. OK. That’s not quite true. I just flat out said “the hazel nut is her clitoris,” which it was! But I thought that everyone in the room was going to kill me. Newsflash: People did actually masturbate before the 1960s (though, during senior year in high school, I had to explain to our valedictorian that Woman could, indeed, masturbate. She didn’t believe me, or at least pretended not to). Maybe if we weren’t always negotiating these awkward work-arounds to make sexuality and sex legitimate topics of conversation in the collegiate classroom, people might see that as a possibly interesting start to the conversation, not end it.

Obviously, one of the reasons people feared talking about sex was because they were afraid of being pigeon-holed as someone who had to work on sexuality. I think people were surprised that my dissertation topic was more focused on political economy than sex, as if knowing what a clitoris is makes me incapable of writing about anything else. Having a sexuality, being able to talk about sex and identity, should contribute to making one cosmopolitan, not provincial. I eventually learned that if one wanted to have a remotely sane discussion of sex, just go to the Anthro Department and talk with them and let the Literature people stay in their bubble.

I like Melville. Not everything he wrote was pure sublimation. It would be nice if that entered the discussion occasionally. I think it’s actually a more difficult book to write about because it’s actually fun (Melville is also being extremely facetious in that passage, if you hadn’t noticed, but Utopian all the same).


Enabling Violations

February 29, 2008

The above albino beauty is Tessa, known by her code-name Sage. She is one of the X-Men; perhaps even the ‘original’ X-Man if one is to accept pervo X-Men scribe Chris Claremont’s retro-continuity, which holds that Professor Xavier found Tessa but didn’t want her openly recruited into his school. Instead, he sent her to spy on his industrialist enemies in the Hellfire Club — a group of SM aficionados devoted to World Domination. As a teenage girl, Tessa and her robot or computer brain (or whatever) dressed up in high heels and a bustier everyday while serving as the duplicitous personal assistant to the Black King of the Hellfire Club, Sebastian Shaw. Once Tess came out of deep-cover, readers learned more about her; about the many times which she had been violated and had kept on swinging because that indomitable will of hers wouldn’t let anything hold the gal down. I like Sage. I’m probably the only person on the planet who does. She’s a famously unpopular and hated creation since she embodies all of her creator’s terrible writing ticks. But I have faith that even the most poorly written character can exist independently of horrific writing.

I was thinking about Sage today because I was pondering an atrocious phrase the post-structuralist “Gender Theorist,” Judith Butler likes to use – “enabling violation.” Judith drops it into her work all the time. As Butler is no doubt aware, in French “viol” means rape. Her social theory is very committed to the idea that interruptions in linguistic chains of re-occurrence can lead to progressive social change. Hers is a very trite and silly observation since, following David Hume (even Thomas Hobbes, actually), every re-occurrence is always an interruption and a continuation anyway. But she’s made a career of applying this observation to gender while giving props to her boiled down version of feminism. Given that her name is now embedded in the canon of “theory,” all her graduate students now know to go to her classes and parrot the party line about gender being, like language, naturalized by repeated stylized acts over time. Sort of like repeating “Candyman” calls up the monster, we socially repeat our genders until they materialize. The “enabling violations” of language, make these gender roles tough to pin down, according to her followers. It doesn’t matter to most people that Malinowski pointed this out when discussing sexuality and kinship early in the twentieth century, and that this is something all anthropologists are trained to know. Butler has become enough of a force to occlude that intellectual history.

As a student, it was incredibly refreshing for me to see anyone take her on. I argue with friends about her work all the time and am always surprised by their zombie defense of Butler. I guess zombies are somewhat civilized in that they like to eat brains all together, and in collegiate spirit stridently defend the brain-eating habits of their compatriots in the name of ‘freedom of thought.’ Luckily, my Tub of Love, Terry Castle, is big enough of a name to take Judith on. In her autobiographical novel, The Aspirational Lesbian, — before the section on lesbian barometers of the 18th Century* — TC writes “Frankly, I disagree. I don’t find it ‘always unclear what is meant by invoking the lesbian-signifier.’ … I still maintain, if in ordinary speech I say, “I am a lesbian,” the meaning is instantly … clear.” My Tub continues on to beat her breast some more and invokes some fake paraphrasing of Wittgenstein to defend her position. And even though she’s a blow-hard who attacks queer theorists left and right because she suffers from an intellectual strain of rabies, in this case, TC is right.

Still, I wish TC and other deriders of Judith would put aside their pink triangles and focus on the bigger picture to ask what the hell an ‘enabling violation’ is? In Undoing Gender, Butler finally notices the craziness of the phrase, “… that does not mean that we have lost the capacity to distinguish between enabling violations and disabling ones.” Cannily, here she doesn’t address rape and instead talks about losing one’s job, becoming suicidal, gender dysphoria and imprisonment. Being raped is some degree more or less enabling than becoming suicidal? What?

I swear to God, Judith Butler is this sort of indifferent “Johnny Head in the Air” type of masochist who probably enjoyed fairy-tales where a girl has to dance beautifully while wearing red-hot, iron, shoes.

I do know Judith Butler and while she is smart, she has committed herself to a line of reasoning developed long ago, in graduate school. Try as she might, she is incapable of evolving. Most academics get one *good* idea and run with it. Once, when she was defending a Californian’s right to gay-marry, I asked her a question about how the same demographic who will vote in California for gay marriage, at a rate of three-to-one also vote against allowing an illegal alien access to an ER or a school, and will vote for draconian anti-gang measures. I asked if this was “sheer political hypocrisy or an example of foreclosure.” Titters all around when I finished my faux-naive question; Butler decided to play dumb and explain foreclosure to me.

I know what foreclosure is.
Bitch, PLEASE.

What does this have to do with Sage’s exotic robotic stoicness? There’s a very Claremontian quality to the concept of enabling violation; by which I mean that the idea that rape can be ‘transformative’ in a good way for a women is very commonly held. It’s not that Claremont is attacking the concept of the ‘liberated woman’ per se. Rather, he is an adherent to the ideology that unless one is bent and broken, violated inside and out (lots of telepathic mind-rape and violations as well in his comics), one can never attain freedom; freedom is an achievement, not a state from which one can be exiled. It’s an SM party-line written into the stories young boys consume every week. In the comic book world, Claremont’s plot and character fetishes are so well known that when this mock newsarama (a comic news site) promotional announcement for a new limited series starring Storm of the X-Men was run, I didn’t even notice the satire:

NRAMA : Tell us about this new “Queen Storm” series that you are writing.

CC : I’m so glad that Marvel gave me the oppurtunity to announce this series myself. The “Queen Storm” series has been my own personal baby for a while and I can’t believe that I’ve actually been allowed to make it. It’s an ongoing Marvel Knights series, set outside of continuity which we’ve dubbed a “Dominated-Erotic-Journey”. Each week a different marvel villain will capture Storm and dominate her and attempt to force her to be their queen. Storm has to use all of her skills and her indomitable will power to overcome them and to beat them.

NRAMA : What kind of stories will be in store for this series?

CC : Well, the first issue is more of a setup issue featuring the Red Skull. It will really give the readers a chance to see what the series will be like. Our second issue is where the action will really heat up, begining a 3 Part story titled “So Speaks Galactus”

NRAMA : If readers are only going to buy one X-Men comic, why should it be this one?

CC : The most remarkable thing about this series is that I’ve even been alowed to write my own cameo. Yes, issue 8 will see me taking the role of the villain, attempting to force Storm to my will and dominate her. Readers will actually be able to see their favourite writer in the comic that they’re reading. What more of a reason could people need to buy it?

Penciled by IGOR KORDEY
Cover by T.CATT
At last, Storms very own ongoing solo series. Each week Storm is found caught in the clutches of a new villain trying to make her their queen. With only her control of the weather and her indomitable will power, how long will it be until an evil villain manages to subdue her completely.
32 PGS./Rated 18…$2.99 Look out for Exiles #84, Genext #1 and QueenStorm #1, all hitting comic shops in June and July.

bitterandrew also discusses this story-telling device in an essay about Claremont’s She Wolf graphic novel.

Mechanically, the rape provides the basis for Marada’s heroic transformation, the process by which an action hero loses his or her confidence so as to eventually regain it and emerge stronger from the experience. Think Clint Eastwood’s character in Fistful of Dollars, making a near-fatal mistake in sizing up the opposition then slinking off to re-arm, re-train, and re-gain his mojo. In that sense, the use of rape as a character-buliding obstacle capitalizes upon an extremely horrible real-world event by turning it into just another piece of genre shorthand, one exclusively used for female protagonists.

It’s interesting to find that this genre shorthand has found its way into critical theory seemingly without having rung everyone’s alarms. It’s nuts. I have to say, that I also find Butler to be as a terrible a writer as Claremont. His stilted mechanical dialog and her stilted rhetorical movements are of a kind. I am not here referring to the excessive jargon someone like Martha Nussbaum or my Tub of Love refer to when criticizing JB. Instead, I refer to her over-reliance on rhetorical questions. Sometimes she will write an entire paragraph of rhetorical questions. Who uses a rhetorical question for something that is going to print? Sure, if you’re giving a speech, by all means, include a few. But edit them the hell out when you’re publishing. The rhetorical question is a coy little device, of a piece with oblique (yet obvious) references to rape as a concept instead of a real-life event. It allows her to take trauma theory, apply it to a philosophy of language, yet allows her to avoid having to consider what a trauma actually feels like to a human subject. Butler likes to “trouble” concepts. Gender is “troubled” or “undone” euphemistically, instead of, say, “totally fucked over.”

Judith and Chris, this is a plea. Step back and check your insanity. Get a grip and get some therapy. Let Sage be freed. I want her to grow into her own character. I want graduate students to cease casually invoking rape when they discuss language. Beloved fictional characters and real-life impressionable minds depend on this!

* ERROR — MTL TC discusses Lesbian Barometers here.

New Books!

December 21, 2007

What did darkessatnoon get for his birthday other than a heaping pile of grief due to the proximity of his personal September 11th?*

lurches sent me an amazon gift certificate with which I ordered Essays in Existentialism by Sartre (for my forthcoming post “Styles of Bad Faith”), as well as two books by Tao Lin whose obnoxious blogging irritates me to no end. These are the novel Eeeee Eee Eeee and his short stories, Bed. They came along with a curious book of short stories by Miranda July, No one belongs here more than you.

Finally, and utterly coincidentally, a review copy of Mick Taussig’s My Cocaine Museum landed on my desk last week. I attended the early lectures upon which this book is based, and I can already assure you that there is some extreme bullshit going on inside this book. Review forthcoming.

Oh, also during last night’s insomnia, I found my Bedford “Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism” edition of Gulliver’s Travels. This was a Nortonish series of books that would publish a piece of the canon and then follow it with essays that “illuminate” the text with readings from various perspectives such as ‘the’ Deconstructionist, New Historicist, Feminist, and Reader Response takes on Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a laughably stiff approach to literary criticism, as if after reading a series of these books undergraduates would find not only their knowledge of Swift increased but also critical theory. It’s as push-button as you can possibly get. What’s fantastic is that my theory-hating national treasure, Dreamboat TC, wrote the essay on deconstruction. “A Deconstructionist Perspective.” Seriously. Because Swift is ripe for a touch of Derrida. Let the hilarity ensue. And the sad thing is, hers isn’t the worst essay of the mess!

So it’s going to be a Merry Christmas here if I can sneak some time from my days off to finish reading and review a couple of these. Otherwise, look for more from me in the New Year.

Oh, and to reward loyal readers, I now grace you with a photo of George (right; upraised eyebrows; skeptical look) and Harry (left; kinked tail). One day, I will permit you to see a picture of their sister, 7(e).

*Yes, I know some of you are displeased by my use of the real September 11th as a metaphor, however, I’m equally bothered by other people’s boring mention of the real September 11th, therefore we’re even.

December 17th

December 17, 2007

No new content here today. Sadly, this is the anniversary of my own personal September 11th.

6:05 — blogs
6:10 — in mourning; pets cat
6:29 — takes out the trash; tears freeze on face
6:32 — misses bus; curses god
7:53 — arrives at work early; goes online; curses Harvard University’s website
9:14 — replies to j.m.’s email; cries
9:15 — tells co-worker about insane show on History Channel called “How William Shatner Changed the World”; cackles
9:38 — complains to l about tao lin’s latest fame-whore stunt
10:43 — still in mourning; can’t find staple-remover
10:44 — finds staple remover behind coffee mug; plays with rubber band; sniffs
11:34 — receives early birthday present; smiles
11:54 — wonders what to pick up for lunch (forgot to make lunch); hopes ex-boyfriend is not eating shrimps for lunch (because ex-boyfriend is allergic to shrimps); realizes that, because of time difference, if ex-boyfriend accidentally ate shrimps for lunch then he’s possibly already dead (feels sadder); weeps
12:17 — has “wedding” soup for lunch; it’s pretty good
14:39 — wistfully mails some letters
16:04 — feels masochistic; googlesmaurice blanchot blog”; sees a depressing number of entries; wonders what’s wrong with people
16:40 — sends suggestions on a syllabus to a friend; has reason to mention the inclusion of a piece by guattari sans deleuze; is pleasantly surprised at the chance to do that
16:50 — looks forward to shaving at home; hopes not to miss that same spot under the chin to the right that’s always so difficult to get
18:43 — comes home; pets cat
18:56 — looks up a piece where a bunch of academics take 911 personally; loves that Dreamboat TC‘s entry discusses how 911 personally affects her dog and compares the disaster to the spots versus stripes conundrum

"One is Almost Tempted to Say [ She ] Looks Stranger As a Woman Than She Does as a Man."

December 5, 2007

This reader’s favorite blogging belle lettriste speaks!

As usual, she rails against thuggish, bovver-booted, queer theory and babbles on about her personal problems, though no mention of that doll, Blakey. (Someone is being frozen out of the LRB.) Today what ails is a xenophobic frustration with dipthongs.

In my own case – it’s true – certain vile French diphthongs may be part of the problem: the phonetic distinctions between Cahun, Caen, Caïn, Cannes, Cohn, canne, cane, cagne, camp, cône and con remain, sadly, a perpetual trial.

This reader was riveted. Is it OK for her to end on con?

There is also an extended digression about Stein and Toklas, as the stodgy heterosexual subscribers to the London Review of Books are titillated with more lesbian gossip from eighty years ago. It turns out that Toklas was butcher than her husband. Interesting… or is it, really? Akin to Poe’s “teeth,” the word “butch” is repeated four or five times in this article. She admits to this parenthetically: “The hoary old butch-femme distinction is one I’ve had a hard time avoiding in this piece.” That’s probably because Ms. Castle wishes to be a butch but doesn’t know where to put her arms. Sing along, now. C’mon! You know the words. We’ve all heard her familiar refrain of “Damn, I Wish I Were Mary Cheney’s Lover.” Also lots of stuff on the kind of imagery she finds wrenching (hint: if you want to impress her, photoshop her face pic into blackface).

All in all, more dithering and less entertainingly Alzheimery than usual. In general, it is more amusing to read Castle as she mixes literary observations in with anecdotes about her “Autistic Trip” to New Mexico with her elderly mother (whom TC openly mocks before dumping her by a tree for a couple of hours while she gets her drink on). Nevertheless, Dreamboat TC is still my most cherished attention whore… even if she didn’t get uninvited from any funerals this month.