Thursday, December 20, 2012

Magic Mike, Stripperphobia, and So-Called Compassionate Commentators

It's All Good Fun Til It's Time To Get Mature and Responsible

        You can just see the brimming pride of writers tackling a taboo subject who fancy that they are giving it the fair shake that noone gives it.  The self-satisfaction drips off the page as the compassionate, even-handed master of objectivity gives people from the ghetto, ex-cons, sex-workers, the disabled, boxers, or iconoclasts of some sort the same treatment we would give anyone else, using the same moral criteria and giving the same benefit of the doubt.
        Which is all bullshit.  The bigotry is still there, it's just harder to pick out, and comes dressed up in empathy.  The example I'm thinking about tonight is people who write about sex workers generally--but here we'll stick to strippers--taking great care not to judge them for BEING sex workers.  Ah, but in order to do that, having not truly rooted out their prejudice, they have to come up with some 'excuse' for their being sex workers.  A reviewer for Magic Mike reads it as a critique of capitalism because these men have little choice left to them in these hard times.  Narratives about women will often explain their coming to stripping with reference to an abusive family/childhood or some exigent need for money (like being a single mom).  The implication is that nobody good--and remember, we're such good writers because we're assuming these freaks are good too!--would choose stripping without being forced to in some way.  It's an unacknowledged premise, so common that commentators rarely feel the need to say it.  Hell , they probably don't even think it consciously.  It''s just there, like fear is there around Black people for some racists, whether they're conscious of it or not.  
        How are we to really understand anything about a minority if we take as premise what still needs to be proved?  We can't find anything out here, because we don't even ask the right initial questions:  Does she enjoy her job?  Is a typical 9 to 5 healthier or unhealthier than this work environment?  Is it not a case of 'dire need' but rather just a standard career choice scenario, in which this career is more attractive than many high-paying, respectable jobs?  I'll give you a shortcut--the answer is, in many cases, YES, it's not desperation but, variously, taste, shrewd economic sensibility, a commitment to one's art, enjoyment of the dancing and the celebration of one's own body....there are many reasons.  The art one is an interesting motivation most commentators never get.  What's the scenario for the death of one's favorite form of creative production, be it poetry, dance, film or sculpture?  A 9 to 5 job.  I've known quite a few strippers who strip because they can earn the same amount of money in two nights that they'd earn in a whole week in every other job available to them.  That leaves 5 nights a week to do their art.  Pretty sweet.  Others might not have some art they're saving time for, but simply share in Marx's distaste for wage slavery, and, for the sex workers who have no bosses, for the hierarchical capitalist workplace.
      I expected more from "Magic Mike", given that Soderbergh did in fact avoid most of the common prejudices towards communism in "Che" and towards prostitutes in "The Girlfriend Experience".  But the moral of Magic Mike seems to be:  when it's time to get serious about winning the girl of your dreams and finding a fulfilling life, that means time to quit stripping.  Throughout the film, I was impressed with the gender role-reversing theme of the male who can't get a female to take him seriously or want anything but casual sex (how many men have THAT problem?!) because all these women have that fundamental prejudice about sex workers, that they are 'party people':  fun to dabble around with but not for settling down with.  I thought the film was going to deconstruct that prejudice, but instead it instantiates it by having our hero quit a backstage scene increasingly rife with drugs (yawn--another cliche') and go home humbly to his finally ready for him Decent Girl.
      A truly revolutionary film about sex work or any other minority position that immediately calls to mind in the mass populace cliches about a hard or unhealthy life (i.e. films about drug use and addiction; mental illness; gay or poly families; ex-cons ) would simply be a fairly traditional story wherein the big 'heavy' subject matter is just matter-of-fact backdrop, and there is no real crisis or inherent problem.  Just the problems the characters would face if they were in a more common position.  That story would go further in normalizing the presently marginalized people or deconstructing our images and narratives about these minorities than one which heavy-handedly addressed the common problems in this field.  Because the most common problem is the arrogance of all outsiders thinking they know what the common problems are, what's healthy and what's unhealthy therein, and why people do what they do.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Top 8 Reasons the Olympics Are a Surreal, Sometimes Absurdist Fascination


          What an oddball the Olympics are in a culture industry where really popular things usually belong to a genre with other works like them.  But what's like the Olympics?  Not other sports, which don't like to share broadcasts, fans, cities as synchronously, and tend to make more sense athletically, draw more fans naturally.

1.  The experience of watching many sports in one broadcast, one city, one intense period of daily nearly nonstop manifestation for 2 weeks.  It's a community lover's dream.  You know, those of us who think the world's too scattered and unconnected, as are most accounts of the world, be it in economics, criticism, or artistic portraits?  We get a little relief and an inspiration to keep preferring interconnectedness over the isolation of genre, department, field, sector, whatever. It's a Marxist thought experiment to avoid the kind of production of abstract space where everything has its self-contained place that Henri Lefebvre diagnoses as the evil genius means by which capitalism maintains itself.  Add the disorientation of time delay, so that in the evening you're watching people shoot arrow in the noonday sun.  One can't underestimate the importance of the compact, packed grab bag of intuitive and counterintuitive uses of the human body over 2 weeks.  Duration is one of the tricks for altering consciousness.  A two hour basketball game is just a brief forgettable blip in your day.  Two weeks taken out of your life to watch the same but different event full of mini-events?  Well that's a chance to do something long enough to defamilarize it.  And defamiliarization is the name of the game for those who want the freshness and innovativeness of an LSD trip without having to take the damn drug everyday.
2.  The chance to do something other than get mesmerized by what you're watching, and also do that something with the trancelike consistency of the Olympics that makes for good extended self-analysis in journaling if you haven't done that for awhile (I check in on myself every 4 years), or for an ambitious long eclectic piece, given unexpected eccentric twists and turns as it responds to the bizarre rhythm of going from synchonrized diving to javelin to volleyball.  My four-year check ins are facilitated by the convenient and for me profound placing of the always well-designed logo: London 2012 running across every track, ski pole, underneath the ice and above the court.  I let everything stay temporally grounded, think about the passage of time since the last Olympics and my ways of tracking it, while time is defied by the daredevils zooming over the year below them.
3.  The sports are just bizarre sometimes, and totally make our usual viewing habits look absurd.  Like just being a spectator at a long rowing race.  You pay that money and reserve that spot and then you get to watch 10 seconds of a 3-minute race in the middle?  Or what about going to watch pistol shooting.  You just look around and think, these have to be the most unfamous sportsmen or celebrities at the top of their game ever.  And what kind of strange collection of human beings knows the names of these 'athletes' and how good each one is?  If I was going to write a psychotic character I'd make him the world's most passionate and knowledgeable shooting fan.  Or maybe badminton fan.  Or maybe it's brilliant performance art to devote yourself to fandom in one of these sports, to avoid the trance of normality and retain consciousness of the fundamental strangeness of contemporary life.  Just think, you're committing to fandom in a sport missing the classic reasons to do it--doesn't give you something to relate about when talking to strangers.  Doesn't give you that time immorial human need to participate in massive rituals, sacrifices, catharses.  Doesn't involve impressive physical specimens moving their bodies in beautiful, graceful, or unbelievable ways.  Nope, you're just watching a Adela Sykorova of the Czech Republic shoot a gun.  Wait, you're telling me you don't know the great Sykorova?!
4. It's also bizarre and even unnerving to root for countries.  Sure, you can do this also in the World Cup, but it's about the combination of oddities in the Olympics.  Besides it's easy to wax philosophic on what it means if Italia is the best in the world at soccer this year.  What about if it's best at water polo, fencing and volleyball?  My favorite game is to root for the countries with the most commendable governments that least oppress their people and the world.  That strategy does it make it alienating to watch broadcasts here in the U.S.A., since you're always rooting for them to lose, along with Israel and China, but it gives you something to talk about with the people when you visit the Netherlands, Venezuela, or France (who this olympics you get really behind because they didn't have a socialist president in 2008). There's something simultaneously more metaphorically profound, inducing you to think of world politics and economics, and dangerously simplistic about rooting for a country.  It's so ridiculous to say "Go USA crush France" when woman's trampoline is the context, that it allows some a degree of sudden discomfort about patriotism. You take the team both more and less seriously than a city sports team.  The combination of more and less serious is the sacred consciousness.  You can deconstruct without detachment, but also sincerely engage without ignorant fanaticism.
5. Then there's the sports that are totally weirdly ruined by having to judge a winner, like gymnastics or figure skating.  Both sabotauge the aesthetic power of the bodies moving through the air by the necessity to perform the expected judgeable moves, and the emphasis on just landing them over heightening the pure power and beauty of the movement.  I want the Russian figure skater who dances the most movingly to win; I don't give a shit if he falls when he jumps.  The guy who won did perfect jumps, but we had to endure his anxious rote simple arm-waving and overlong, aesthetically boring lead-up to the those jumps.  And of course one you get caught up in thinking like the judges you're no longer really enjoying the story told by the bodies in flight. You're performing a nerdy calculus of arbitrary numbers.  I'm thinking of how ridiculous the floor routine is in gymastics.  It's dancing ruined by interrupting it with rather unartistic feats of pure athleticism that justify calling it a sport and ranking winners.  The poor girls look embarassingly without rhythm and soul compared to real dancers as they prance around to whatever's trendy in the insular world of gymnastics that year, then spend too long in the corner of the mat not dancing but prepping their body for one of the show-off and judge me moments.  What a bastardization to try to make a judgeable sport out of dance.  Still, you gotta love the bizarreness of it.  When football players dance they get penalized.
6.  The sports that seem designed with arbitrary conditions that obviously don't have the most natural, graceful conditions for the proposed work of the bodies in competition in mind.  For example, beach volleyball is just volleyball where the athletes dress like getting a tan or finding a mate matter more than comfortable maximized athletic performance, and it's is played on a surface drastically reducing the speed and manuevearability of the players.  It's like inventing a new tennis that has to be played underwater.  Or how about the biathlon? It's  always odd to watch people race on skis across flat ground, when you're thinking--why don't do downhill?  Don't you feel like being world champion going 80 times slower than the last place guy going downhill just means you're not really FIRST?  I'm just riffing, the way these defamiliarizing sports lead me to do.  I know perfectly well the endurance required in cross-country privileges self-overcoming more than being the fastest possible (or else they'd be going downhill), which is a nice reminder that we should be admiring and rewarding not just those who fit the capitalist model of success:  fastest, strongest, opponent overwhelming, pulling in the most points or money; and fits a more philosophical notion of heroism that privileges capacties for self-overcoming and self-mastery that don't necessarily make you able to ovecome another person in direct combat or make you very 'useful' to society (A boxer or football player would make good soldiers or defenders of damsels in distress).  
    Okay, but then to make the skier stop and shoot targets with a rifle occasionally?  What the hell?  Can we put anything together?  I want a sport where you have to be the first ice skater around the track while still having time to draw a passable version of Edward Munch's "The Scream".  Winner determined by a special equation of fastest skater and creator of art that most impresses the art critic judges, who themselves operate the stopwatch, too, and are so delighted and thrown for a loop by the combination that it really boosts the originality of their non athletic critical pieces that year.  In the art world they say: "it's an Olympic year! The art journals will be wild this year!"
7.  Then there's the sports that are absurd because they take what in your experience is a party hobby that belongs at home and take it downtown and give it the ritualistic trappings of any sport, so you feel like we're all eavesdropping into the most important family room in the country, with people who spend all their time training to be the best at Friday night hangout session with the buddies. I'm talking Olympic table tennis of course!  It's also bemusing to watch an athlete  who barely moves his body, has no need for muscles or cardiovascular fitness, and whose outfit has no real purpose vis-a-vis his sport. These kinds of things just remind you that you can make meaning almost anywhere, and that things that seem like really important and interesting achievments to some people might very well seem like the most boring and unimportant achievment possible to others, reminding one of the daunting and easily forgettable diversity of human beings and their values or tastes.  And how cool is it that there's a sport that allows scrawny, nerdy, asthmatic, aspergers kids to dream realistically of being a world champion?  If they had a sport available for conquest by creative gadfly types most gifted with words and most drawn to leading friends in invented rituals, I would have possessed so much more self-confidence growing up.
8.  It's also really useful that most of the sports are not interesting enough to really focus on very consistently or attentively, but not boring enough to not positively affect whatever else you're doing--writing stories, indulging in a long, unhurried conversation on the phone or video chat, writing letters and postcards, practicing a foreign language.  The World Cup is way more exciting for me, but when its over I have little to show for it.  After the Olympics I have a bunch of creatively completed pieces of work and tasks and a new consciousness.  Sometimes my wife or girlfriend walk in the room and say: "Why is that on?  You're barely even watching it?"  Me:  "Would you do more than barely watch weightlifting?  And would you want to spend one hour talking to your mother without the epic battle between Abbas Alqaisoum and Aliaksandr Makaranka to lift more weight there in the background, in order to keep a little healthy absurdity available?"  Needless to say, I usually spend the two weeks alone.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

If You Lose Your Body You Just Die, If You Can't Keep Your Word It's Worse




                Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche are like two rival futbol clubs in the world of philosophy.  Their philosophies mostly hate each other.  But they come together, surprisingly, on for me the singlemost important ethical principle there is:  if you can’t keep your word at all costs you’re not even in the arena of the ethical (as Kant might put it).  Nietzsche calls human beings the animals that make promises.  I might add that good human beings are the ones that keep them.
                If this sounds pedestrian-yeah, of course, keep your word whenever possible—it’s because that ‘whenever possible’ sneaks its way into our contemporary understanding of the promise.  Not for Kant, and he gets a lot of shit for it.  It’s easy to write him off as dogmatic for arguing that a pledge to tell the truth only means anything if you’d even tell the truth to a cop or killer at your door asking if you’re the one he’s looking for.  How could that possibly be good advice?  How could it jive with our modern sense of self-determination and agency.   Well, it couldn’t, but it certainly does jive with self-determination.  Because for Kant, following a law ‘dogmatically’ and self-determination are not diametrically opposed.  Indeed, allowing oneself space to alter or update the promise is not self-determination—it’s opening yourself to determination by any host of forces:  habit, dumb desire, fear, misperceived need, self-protection, the dictates of your age and place, etc.   Nietzsche argues something similar:  if you can’t command yourself then you will be commanded.  Most assume he means if you can’t keep your promises to yourself you’ll just end up serving someone else’s will.  No, he means something more common and dangerous—you’ll be commanded by things you don’t even see commanding you.  Namely, the one’s  listed above.
                Let’s drop the two philosophers and put it my terms, concentrating for the purposes of this blog to the promise between people. Wedding vows, friendship promises, promises between members of a civic organization.  The vital rule is that you can’t alter the promise, no matter what new information comes, what new revelation you have, what you now get, unless everyone who agreed to it is in consensus.  Why?  Because the damage done in upholding bad promises is overall less noxious to society than the damage done by opening the door to unilateral revision.    This is because, to put it simply, we are un self-aware, rationalizing, arbitrary, needy, scared selfish and above all infinitely sophistic animals.  Most of us have virtually no capacity to distinguish between when we’re arguing something because in good faith, to the best of our knowledge it seems right and when we’re doing so because we desperately need and want it to be right.  We’re all whores.  As someone argues in Richard LInklater’s excellent Waking Life, the difference between apes and humans is smaller than that between humans and the most courageous minds like Nietzsche’s.  What’s so different about someone like Nietzsche?  To put it in a nutshell—he’s one of the few good at figuring out when his and others’ motives aren’t what they claim to be.
                What I’m saying is you must do something you now ‘know’ is wrong if you promised someone to do so, because if you don’t, you will train yourself and others to abandon their word when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable.  We’re crafty little fuckers.  If we get away with an exception once, even if it was a good exception that led to a better state of things, we will figure out how to get away with it whenever we want.  And once that’s the case, why even use promises?  What’s to distinguish a promise from whims, something you feel like doing at the time.
                Let me offer a few examples of the catastrophic consequences of not keeping your word.  Let’s say you promise your partner never to lie, as Kant would have it.  You may think that lying about one petty thing that will hurt her needlessly is ‘worth’ it, but once you allow yourself that reasoning, you will use it also when it is not worth it.  You will use it arbitrarily and compulsively, and if your loved ones intuit it they will do the same.  Perhaps your kid sees you lie once about something tiny and later lies to you about heroin use, overdoses and dies. 
                Of course there are parallels at the level of government.  The U.N. makes laws, which are kinds of promises if they’re made democratically.  The U.S.A. ignores them and invades Afghanistan.  It seems dogmatic not to allow them to do so because they could save so many lives by stopping the terrorist, saving the people from the tyrannous regime, etc.  But now they’ve opened the door for everyone watching, from Iran to North Korea, to do whatever the fuck they want as well.  Why not?  We’ve legitimized the ‘keep your agreements unless you come across an exception in which it seems like more good will come of it to break them’ line of reasoning.  Once you go down that route, the exceptions pop up in all shapes and colors, in the mouths of heroes and monsters, for good and for catastrophic effect, and we have absolutely no way to stop any of it.
                We forget the most sacred purpose of wedding vows.  They are not for imprisoning the will, further patriarchy, or a cheap substitution for thought, they could be and are used that way. They are designed to keep us honest.  To keep us working hard on our side of the compromise even though the dark times.  Wedding vows are kind of like the rules the wise Chinese shopkeeper gives to the young man who buys the adorable little mogwai animals in the movie Gremlins.  Whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight.  They’ll try to cajole you into doing so. They’re so innocent and adorable and loving, how could you resist your instinct and break this one rule?  Just don’t.  Morning will come and you’ll still have your cute little mogwai friend.  If you, don’t, he’ll turn into a monster, and that’s the end of that relationship.
                The moral of the story is:  don’t be like the USA, and live in exceptionalism, no matter how practical, effective, healthy or just it seems to you.  Otherwise your personal life will become like the world under USA hegemony…

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Scholars Overcome Bigotry...In the Popular Areas at Least



                I am above all a writer but secondarily an academic and activist (althought lately I’m thinking the latter is always there when I’m writing).  As such, I have experience with academics and activists in this country and I can tell you one thing we’re good at:  diagnosing and picking apart cases of prejudice, privilege, and power relations when it comes to well-established versions of them: racism, heterocentrism, sexism, ablism, etc. (This is true for my field of , at least.  I’ve known plenty of clueless Political Science and Science professors in this arena). 
                I can also tell you one thing we’re bad at:  doing the same thing with not so well-established versions of them.  We were good at deconstructing racism far before we were good at homophobia.  We were good at deconstructing classism far before we got any good at sexism.  Where is one field where we are behind?  Nonmonogamy.  To scholars and activists of 2050, we’re going to look as stupid as the homophobes of the 1950s look to us now.  We don’t even have to try hard anymore to acknowledge the rights of same-sex couples, but the rights of same-sex triples or quads, let alone heterosexual ones?  Rarely. 
                Let me give you an example from the conference I just returned from.   The conference theme was revolution, and a very smart professor was lecturing about revolution in the Middle East.  As a committed revolutionary myself, I found her entire talk to be politically and intellectually resonant with my own commitments.  She challenged Western pundits who give too much credit to social media for what the people themselves are doing, fetishizing western-made (and profited-from) technology.  She talked interesting strategies for teaching revolution to liberal-democratic, apathetic spoiled U.S.American students.  She talked of the importance of women to the revolution, and the necessity of ending sexist judgments about the way female protestors dress or comport themselves if the revolution is to be successful. 
Then she said something so jarringly counterrevolutionary to me I sat blinking for minutes.  In a list of Bad Things Men and Politicians Do in the region, she cited a political official in Libya stating that he intends to make polygamy not illegal.  Apparently we were supposed to think that was horrible.  In my book making any form of marriage not illegal is a good thing, as long as they are adults.  I said so.  What was the response in the room full of academics and people interested in revolution?  Indigance at me.  One said:  “You have to understand that since it’s not equal, and a women can’t have multiple spouses, it’s an institution of sexist repression.”  “Then make it equal,” I said.  “Don’t outlaw half of our rights because the other half has yet to catch up.”  Also, in a room full of people trained to dissect words carefully no one seemed to notice the official had said he wanted to make it not illegal, and were talking as if he had said: “everyone must be polygamous”.  When scholars are that sloppy you know they are thinking only with their prejudices.  The professor herself complicated her original statement by telling me something downright bigoted “no woman wants to share her partner with someone else.”  I was astounded that such an ignorant and bigoted statement towards the millions of polygamous and polyamorous people in the world was met with no resistance.   Imagine if someone had said “no woman wants another woman for a partner”.  Astounding. 
Of course there are deeper problems here, such as the commitment to using the law to deal with moral judgments about people’s private lives.  It’s amazing how often this society thinks we can just outlaw whatever we don’t agree with in the household, from gay marriage to plural marriage to drug use to prostitution, despite overwhelming evidence that criminalization never works to curb practices human beings historically want and always will want.  Polygamy (which means multiple spouses, be they male or female), and to a lesser degree polyamory, have a massive presence throughout the history of humankind.  Some argue there have been more poly people on the planet than monogamous.  But in a room full of fifty scholars on this pleasant spring day in Ann Arbor most of them embarrassed themselves to future generations of scholars and activists, in addition to offending at least three poly people in the room I later spoke with.  Another of these deeper problems is the same old reformist ‘art of the possible’, whereby true liberation seems too difficult so we vehemently get behind mezzo-liberation or even repression (as long as its equal repression for all!).  Thus since it seems so impossible to convince countries in that region to allow women to have multiple spouses or partners as well, let’s just outlaw poly altogether.  What a visionary approach to human rights.
                Let nonmonogamy be a warning and let us ask ourselves—where else are we 30 years behind other struggles?  Where else do we arrogantly, as U.S.Americans tend to do, ask the law to enforce our bigotry?

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.