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 Michel Foucault and I agreed to meet on top of the heavenly reflection of Mount Olympus to discuss the book that closed the chapter of his life on Earth. In the World of Beyond, not very much differs from Earth. The main difference being that you only have to wish you were somewhere to be there already. This saved me the mountain trek.


Between two drags from his scentless Gaulloise, Michel draws a pocketbook from underneath his coat and hands it to me. Is this what I think it is? The third volume of his renowned History of Sexuality, The Care of the Self (Le Souci de soi), was not meant to be the last: Confession of the Flesh (Les Aveux de la chair) - or the "unborn fourth" - was left incomplete, privately held in the Foucault archive up to these days. It is now also held in Florence's pocket. The task, now, is to avoid letting myself carried away by my ecstatic mood and bear in mind the focus of this present conversation, which will revolve around Michel's visionary exploration of Greek and Roman texts written in the first and second centuries A.D., which without necessarily dealing explicitly with the formation of the individual, allow us to trace up an early ethics of the subject.


Florence: Could you explain us your decision to open your book with "Dreaming of One's Pleasures", a whole chapter on Artemidorus' interpretation of dreams - or oneirocritica? How does it inform us on an early shaping of an ethics of the subject?  

 

Michel: The reason is quite simple, really. With The Care of the Self, I wanted to examine how the way the individual makes use of his (you'll pardon me, the texts I reference very rarely refer to female individuals) - of his body and mind starts to take up a moral stance throughout the two first centuries of our era. Artémidorus's interpretation of dreams reflects principles of an appreciation of a specific sexual conduct. As I write in the book, these principles underlie Artemidorus' analysis of sexual dreams. In this type of oneirocritica, the social position (and sometimes, the physical condition) of the dreamer in relation to that of his sexual partner matters more than the sexual act itself. It is thus possible to witness an evident correlation between sexual and social scenes. For instance, Artemidorus will only imply that it is a bad or a good omen to dream of a sexual intercourse with a person who occupies a given social status (penetration being the only conceivable sexual intercourse), without ever referring to the concept of morality. To properly answer your question, I would say that this opening chapter serves to remind the reader of the fact that sexual experience is, at the time, still very much understood in classical terms: the value of sexual acts, in many instances, is defined by the social position of those who engage in them. This first chapter hints on this idea that while the subject is still understood in terms of his place in society - as a citizen - his individuality becomes also "subject" to scrutiny. The sphere of citizenship is thus extended, and starts permeating the private sphere; an honourable citizen must have an honourable conduct when out in the city (or city-state) as well as in his dreams.


Florence: You however state that one has to understand Artemidorus's onerocritica as a very partial representation of what is to be considered as "honourable conduct" at the time: it was mainly addressed to a (male) privileged portion of the population. I believe that this is the reason why the texts that you examine in the following chapters, although also written around the same period, convey rather different and more straightforward judgements over sexual conducts. Can you explain us how this ties in with this growing concern with the culture of the self that took off at that time?


Michel: Certainly. Before beginning my analysis of these other texts, I wanted to spend some time clarifying this notion of the "culture of the self", which is also the name of my second chapter. I wanted to see how I could connect a growing sexual austerity with a more and more intensive relationship to the self. Indeed, I found out that it is not through the tightening of a legal or religious code that sexual prohibition seems to take place, but because the individual starts to see himself as subject of his actions. Through my examination of Seneca and Epictetus's texts, I got to see this culture of the self as a veritable art of self-knowledge - "art de la connaissance de soi". Each individual, according to these authors, is expected to be taking care of his self: there is no age, not a moment or a situation more appropriate than another: it must be a perpetual exercise. It is possible to point to three main components of this art of self-knowledge: (i) knowing how to live without luxury, through abstinence, (ii) regularly subject oneself to a thorough examination of one's conscience, (iii) be in constant control of oneself. Again, I want to stress that this culture of the self didn't emerge as a result of a solidification of the law or religious codes; this change concerns the way the individual comes to see himself as responsible for constituting himself as a moral subject.


Florence: You spoke about - excuse me the rephrasing - the importance of the individual to place himself as an honorable subject in the realm of the community; can we now go more in depth into the complex relationship between social position and identity - a problem that you investigate in your third chapter, "Self and Others"?


Michel: I would say that it is by observing the changes occurring on the marital and the political scenes that it is most practical to account for this relationship between self and others. For instance, the evolution of marriage from a private to a public institution has the effect of interrogating this institution as a way of life; marriage becomes more and more about a healthy relationship between partners. One also notes a drastic evolution concerning the way politics is understood: one shouldn't feel obliged to actively participate in the life of the city-state, and if one does, one should bear in mind that he has to be a moral example to others, and know when his time has come to withdraw from the public scene. In public life as well as in married life, the growing concern for one's control over one's self can also be understood as a crisis of subjectivation.

 

Florence: Now could you tell us how this crisis of subjectivation reflects itself in discourses at the time, referring to your fourth chapter, "The Body"?

 

Michel: It is interesting how philosophy and medicine elaborate very similar discourses on aphrodisia - sexual pleasures. Both agree on the fact that to take care of one's self correctly, one has to pay attention to the health of the mind and the body: the unhealthiness of the body will result in the degenerescence of the mind, and vice-versa.  The aphrodisia start to be comprehended as existing only for the purpose of reproduction, possibly detrimental to one's constitution when not refrained enough. Highly specific recommandations and precepts are developed by doctors (such as Galen) and philosophers as to what a good sexual conduct should be. These recommandations and precepts can't however be assimilated to a Christian moral: they are expected to be integrated within the experience the subject makes of his self.

Florence: God, time is running out. I'll have to go back to my own world soon, so let's try to get briefer. In your fifth chapter, "The Wife" you further your analysis on the evolution of the institution of marriage. What does this institutional change entail?

 

Michel: It means that marriage is now more about the bond between spouses than it is about economical arrangement. As far as the husband is concerned, a principle of moderation is to be respected: reciprocity, more than control over others, becomes the new duty. The art of married life takes shape through precepts - a lot of them developed by the Stoics. This way of life starts forming as a strong model, advertised as conform to nature and socially useful - beneficial to everyone's good. It is through marriage that man finds his rational form. And it is only through marriage that one can establish a satisfying relationship to one's self - the aphrodisia of course being subject to another form of scrutiny.

Florence: If sexual pleasures are more and more relegated to the domestic sphere, and recommandable only under certain very limited conditions, what happens to the traditional love for boys?

Michel: I must say that love for boys, at the end of the classical age, is no longer what is used to be at the time of Socrates. Plutarch and Pseudo-Lucian provide two contrasting examples of how love for boys and for women is rationally justified. Plutarch argues that relationships with boys are disgracious because non-consensual, while they are gracious with women, because reciprocal. Pseudo-Lucian hovers towards the opposite side, positting love for boys as more civilized, more evolved, than love for women - too natural, too primary. In any case, what happens at this time is that with the strengthening of the culture of the self, which implies a strong ambivalence and even hostility towards aphrodisia taking place outside the marriage/reproduction framework, a new erotica emerges, where virginity comes across as a highly respectable virtue.


Florence: Thanks a lot. To conclude, how is your examination of the care of the self relevant to us, living beings of this present era?

 

Michel: Ah, this is an interesting question. I recently had a discussion about this with Deleuze. I won't expand too much on this, but referring to his idea of detachment (décrochement) which engenders a folding, a reflection (un plissement, une réflexion), I would say that you can see my text as an edification of a facultative rule - the rule for facultatively commanding oneself, as a free man, and of course, as a free woman, or whoever you happen to be as a human being. 


It seems that Michel never ceased to use his time wisely since he left us. He has plenty of it to take care of his self, plenty of friends to share his reflections with. When I asked him if he still considered himself as a human-being, he frowned and, looking at the fog down below, responded with another question:

"Do you consider yourself a human-being?"

"We're not in heaven, are we?", I said, hyper-dubitatively. Here, another question. 

"Surely you don't need to ask me. Rather, ask yourself the following: why have I come up here? You could as well be talking to yourself right now."


Maybe I should have gone through the effort of climbing Mount Olympus instead of just wishing I were there.

 

9780814757277_Munozcover_lg.JPGJose Esteban Munoz is a believer. In his most recent book, Crusing Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), Munoz provides a manifesto to combat his queer theory contemporaries who insist that queerness must reject hope and future.  Munoz challenges that embracing an antisocial negativity (most popularized by Lee Edelman), is the only way toward queer emancipation, and instead offers a compelling account of what can occur when queers take on utopian sensibilities in their modalities of the every day.  Importantly, Munoz also notes that his distancing from the anti-social no future is also a critique of the whiteness of Edelman's original project; (specifically, Munoz notes that when Edelman says "the future is kids stuff," that he does not realize there are kids of color that are not white, middle-class products of heteronormative-rearing).

In a read that is simultaneously dense and playful, Munoz's thesis is informed by the theorizing of Ernst Bloch, a Frankfurt School Marxist that has been largely ignored compared to his Frankfurt colleagues. Munoz finds Bloch's ideas on utopia helpful for his project on queer futures, particularly since he sees Bloch as promoting "hope as hermeneutic"; Munoz explains "from the point of view of political struggles today, such a critical optic is nothing short of necessary in order to combat the force of political pessimism" (p.4). In addition to Bloch, Munoz also borrows heavily from Giorgio Agamben's notion of "potentiality," a concept that is distinguished from "possibility" since "unlike a possibility, a thing that simply might happen, a potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense" (p.9). It is this relationship to the future that Munoz believes can be a/temporally created in the present through intentional methods of queer living.

Munoz showcases important queer art and cultural artifacts that illustrate his thesis, including drag performers, photographs of queer stages, spaces of public sex, theater, and dance. For example, in Chapter 2, "Ghost of Public Sex: Utopian Longing, Queer Memories," Munoz uses a "performance text" by John Giorni called You Got to Burn To Shine, in which Giorni recalls "fucking Keith Harring" at  Prince Street subway toilet in 1982. In the description, Giorni celebrates the spontaneous, anonymous, unbridled surrender to pleasure that occurred in the moment he and his then-anonymous partner explored each other's bodies, as other's watched. Munoz suggests that this can be seen as an act of resistance and world-making, especially in the face of AIDS-panic sex-policing that took place in the 80s. He then draws on the dialectal thinking of Theodor Adorno to show how "Giorni's text [is] pointing beyond the barriers of our current conditions of possibility, beyond the painful barriers of the AIDS pandemic; it lets us see, via a certain conjuring of "the past," and for many of us we see this past for the very first time" (p. 38).

Munoz's interest in the relationship of temporality to utopia continues throughout the book. In the chapter entitled, "The Future Is in the Present," Munoz tells us about Samuel R. Delany's memories of the advent of postmodern performance art, which he describes as "spare, difficult, minimal, constituted largely by absence, isolation, even distraction" (quoted in Munoz, p. 51). Delaney admits that his disappointment was a result of modernist expectations for something more coherent, but because "no one ever got to see the whole" Delaney (and Munoz) admit spaces of queer world-making. Here, Munoz turns to C.L.R. James' collection of writings, The Future in the Present, which is a Marxist project that posits the ability for the new world to be created in the shell of the old (as the old is still occurring). James' most lucid example is that of an old shop-worker who, because of decades of manual labor work, is unable to perform his job at the factory. In response, his fellow workers agree to pick up his slack so that he can stay hired, as he has a wife and children to support. Munoz connects James' description of dialiectical utopianism back to the discussion of public sex, which he cites as an example of an "outpost of a new society" (p. 55).  

Themes of space/time continue most saliently in Chapter 4, Gesture, Ephermera, and Queer Feeling, and also Chapter 6, Stages: Queers, Punks and the Utopian Performative. In the former, he uses drag performance artist, Kevian Aviance, who is "six foot two, bald, black, and effeminate" (p. 73), to discuss the potentiality of the "in-between." For Aviance, drag does not mean perpetuating the fictitious gender binary; he performs without a wig, does not cover up the bulge in between his legs, but is unarguably feminine in gesture and movement. Munoz states, "[Aviance] performs the powerful interface between femininity and masculinity that is active in any gender, especially queer ones. In this fashion he is once again a counterfetish, elucidating the real material conditions of our gender desire" (p. 79).  Similarly, in Chapter 6, Munoz sees space/time working together in utopian ways in his discussions of a series of photographs that capture unoccupied queer stages. Although Munoz is talking about literal "stages" (upon which people perform, physically), he makes a nod to the double-entendre of the discourse placed on queer youth that their desire is "just a stage."  The disconcerting images of empty stages where privy queers are used to seeing queer-worlds flourish are a reminder that "[t]he best performances do not disappear but instead linger in memory, haunt our present, and illuminate our future" (p.104). Munoz evokes Derrida's notion of the "trace," to explain the potentiality of memory (and the past) to inform our utopian futurity.

Munoz closes his book with the help of a Magnetic Fields song, "Take Ecstasy With Me," which he reads as call to submit to pleasures," but also "a call for a certain kind of transcendence" (p.185). Fittingly, Munoz reminds us that "queerness is not yet here; thus, we must always be future bound in our desires and designs" (p. 185).  

As is true with his last book, Disidentifications, Munoz masters the art of combining high-theory with performance and media criticism. His ability to blend Marxist analysis and postmodern theory is an example of utopian promise in and of itself. Throughout each showcase of performance artist or artifact, Munoz is fairly consistent in convincing us that there is a space for futurity in queer-world-making. However, his ideas start to become redundant and what we get from each artifact starts to blend toward the middle and end of the book. We are shown over and over that  alternate spaces of queer world-making are possible, that memory informs the present that informs the future, that potentiality is greater than possibility, but not much else. Furthermore, his attempt to claim the political potency of each of his examples (from drag to public sex to Andy Warhol to LeRoi Jones) falls flat at times, especially in contradictory moments when it seems he believes in the importance of collective organizing, but then concedes to individual acts of everyday resistance.

Those critiques noted, I still recommend this book as one of the most coherent pieces out there that addresses the other side of the antisocial thesis debate. Unfortunately (?), as is the case of many books-written-for-the-academy, it is a work that would be read best with chapters extrapolated for different themes of a course, or, what will probably be the case for me, for whatever paper a certain excerpt might be most relevant. Read as a whole, it's redundancy is on the edge of "boring," but Munoz avoids this through his engaging prose, his captivating examples, and his admirable unabashed optimism.


Book Review: Frames of War

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For my book review on Judith Butler's Frames of War, I've chosen to format it as a kind of "annotated abstract" by chapter.

 

Acknowledgments

            Judith Butler starts out her book Frames of War with an explanation of her project.  She frames the book as a collection of essays revised to make a cohesive book.  With this collection, she says that she is attempting "to rethink the complex and fragile character of the social bond and to consider what conditions might make violence less possible, lives more equally grievable, and hence, more livable" (Butler, viii).  Through this explanation, she seems to be situating herself and her words on the border between theory ("rethink," "consider") and praxis ("conditions").  

  

Introduction: Precarious Life, Grievable Life

            In the introduction, Butler suggests a way of perceiving the personal and the collective.  She wants to find a broader way of understanding precariousness, particularly as related to the collective over the personal.  Instead of only seeing individuals as precarious (or not), we need to start to think of everyone as collectively precarious, and of precariousness as a shared condition.  I see this as stemming from her understanding that "lives are precarious by definition" (Butler, 25).  If we understand precariousness outside of the individual and instead as this collective state that she describes, inevitable every life would fall under the category of "precarious". 

            While part of Butler's argument certainly does focus on the recognition of lives that have previously been tagged as "ungrievable," she also wants to make room for those nations (mainly the US) to accept their own precariousness and their own right to grief.  The possible downside to this recognition is a further refusal of certain members of that nation to be included in this acknowledgement of a collective precarious condition. 

 

Chapter 1: Survivability, Vulnerability, Affect

            The focus of this chapter is on certain questions or problems that are particularly relevant within the context of war.  Butler puts into question who the subject is, especially during times of war, and how wartime heightens a sense of national identity.  National identity during wartime serves to reinforce who fits into the cultural conception of human and who does not.  Butler also indicates the circumstances under which someone is grievable or not.

            To demonstrate her point, Butler brings in the photos and the poetry of Abu Graib prisoners, both in terms of content and of the censorship controversy that surrounds them.  From the content of the poetry, Butler reveals the collective pain that the poets feel, and how torture exploits the vulnerability of the body.  No doubt, she claims, the governmental system that allowed these torture acts to take place do not want the public, to whom they are trying to justify their usage of these methods, to see the "enemy" in a state of vulnerability, either through photos or expressive poetry. 

                       

Chapter 2: Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag

            Turning to Susan Sontag's work on photography, Butler examines how photographs have recently been used within the context of war and specifically torture.  She refers mainly to the photos taken of Abu Graib to show how suffering is presented to us and how this presentation changes our reaction. 

            Butler begins by explaining the dominance of "embedded reporting" in the coverage of the Iraqi War.  This is a kind of reporting that is based only on the approved perspective of the government, and specifically of the military.  Butler noted the specific example of the media agreeing not to show images of the coffins of American casualties returning home.

            Turning again to the photos of Abu Graib, Butler points out that they too can be understood as part of embedded reporting as the photos are attempting to show American victory and military prowess.  She notes on Sontag's distinction between narrative and photographs, that narratives inform us, but that photos haunt us.  Sontag also points to the possibility to refuse to be haunted by images, which Butler ties to a refusal that comes from where the viewer sees the subject of the photo within the "frame" of humanity.  If the subject is seen as outside of this frame, the images are not haunting.  Butler argues that without a sense of haunting, there is no sense of loss, and that these individuals are not seen as grievable as they are outside of the frame of what the viewer considers to be human. 

 

Chapter 3: Sexual Politics, Torture, and Secular Time

            In this chapter, Butler looks at the rhetoric of freedom and how it is used to justify state sanctioned force.  She calls attention to the use of feminism and gay rights to attack Islam both physically and verbally, all while "reaffirm[ing] US sovereignty" (Butler, 105).  Sexual politics are also used for arguably less extreme means; the case that Butler presents here is that of France's secular government.  She links the rhetoric of laïcité (secularism) in France, which maintains that the heterosexual family is essential, to the Catholic argument of the necessity of the heterosexual family (and the rejection of the homosexual family).  This association between the secular and the religious puts into question the origin of the cultural rules that dictate the symbolic order.  Even in a rigidly secular nation, it seems, the symbolic order is maintained through religious norms. 

            Butler maintains that the hypocrisy of these rules is plainly presented, as sexual freedom is not completely open, in spite of the attempt of Western cultures to proclaim a superior tolerance in comparison to those individuals or cultures that are seen as extreme "others".  Presumed Western tolerance is used to exclude presumed non-Western intolerance, in situations ranging from immigration to torture. 

 

Chapter 4: Non-Thinking in the Name of the Normative

            The issue that Butler brings up in her fourth chapter is the insufficient framework and language that is used to talk about the subject.  She argues that the way the subject is talked about now "presumes specific kinds of subjects" (Butler, 137) that fit into specific categories.  When we speak of the "cultural subject" or the "sexual subject", we are in essence, Butler argues, normalizing the subject in a way that does not allow the subject to be understood as it truly is. 

            The specific example that Butler presents is the "homosexual subject" and the "Muslim subject", two identities that are often thought of opposite and incompatible.  She indicates that simply because a religious has certain rules, these rules cannot reliably show how people exist within them.  Overall, she is indicating that the language we use limits the subject to the normative.

 

Chapter 5: The Claim of Non-Violence

            With the concluding chapter of her book, Butler examines violence, non-violence, and the subject.  She claims that non-violence cannot be seen as a principle, as it cannot be applied to everything and it cannot exist alone.  This restriction in the way that non-violence can be understood means that it can only be thought of as an appeal.  For Butler, this notion of an appeal for non-violence raises the issue of the time and circumstances required to respond to the appeal for non-violence.

            The subject and violence are connected for Butler as her understanding of the subject implies that the subject is always formed through violence, as subjects are put into categories against their will (for example, gender).  The violence of the creation of the subject continues as the subject exists.  It is through this constant violence and struggle that there is a possibility for non-violence. 

            To explore this further, Butler reviews various theories on violence through mourning, mainly Levinas, Freud, and Klein.  

 

Overall, I thought that this book offered an interesting new take on questions of violence, most notably state-sanctioned violence and how it is perceived, or how it is supposed to be perceived, by those around it.  Butler offers compelling ways of thinking about how different kinds of lives, or even different kinds of subjects, are understood.   My only critique is that often times, she makes rather large claims that she does not necessary back up, and I did not always feel convinced with the "facts" that she used as a basis for her arguments.  I think that reading her work would be more fruitful if she were to more thoroughly cite her sources.

What are the words you do not yet have?

What do you need to say?

What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own,

until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? (p. 41)


You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other.

I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same.

What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other

and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities.

And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences

at the same time as we recognize our sameness (p. 142).
Sister Outsider.jpg

"I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood" (p. 40). These opening words of the essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" are both an invitation and a warning about this attempt to review Sister Outsider, a collection of fifteen speeches and essays by Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde. I can read myself into many of her critiques, especially those of white women. And I shy away from appropriating or undervaluing the work of someone whose social location differs so greatly from mine: I have seen instances in which her words have become iconic (e.g., "Your silence will not protect you. [p. 41] and "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house [p. 112]) and decontextualized. Yet her book also powerfully offers invitations to cross what divides us.


Highly personal, this collection reflects Lorde's struggles with and attacks against racism, heterosexism/homophobia, poverty/classism/capitalism, ageism, and other oppressions ("the deaths we are expected to live" p. 38). Although primarily focused on the United States, the book begins with an essay entitled "Notes from a Trip to Russia" and ends with "Grenada Revisited," a reflection on the U.S. invasion in 1983. These essays frame Lorde's conceptualization of the interlocking systems of oppression in the United States, a country that "pretends to be honest and therefore has so little room to move toward hope" (p. 28). In this collection, through essays that include an open letter to a white feminist about her dismissal of (the work of) women of color and an essay on teaching her Black son to be himself through being fully herself, she offers ways to move toward hope in a system that dehumanizes people.


Lorde does this by working through her own daily attempts to face these issues, as well as how she has used writing--breaking silences--as a mechanism for opposing oppression, healing herself, and passing on lessons that too often are not spoken. At the same time, Lorde never denies how complex these struggles are. In addition to laying out structures and mechanisms of how oppression works (straight against gay, men against women, white women against women of color, black women against black women), Lorde describes how creativity, love, and expression are intimately connected with survival. This book is perhaps a concrete example of what Lorde means when she writes, "Eventually, if we speak the truth to each other, it will become unavoidable to ourselves" (p. 174).


Lorde lets no one, including herself, off the hook. She is very clear about the ways the lives of those she encounters as well as those who read or listen to her words differ based on life experiences and social locations. And while she can be at times harsh and castigating toward those who would attempt to disavow, deny, cover, or hide from these differences or pretend that they are insurmountable, she is simultaneously gentle and inviting, clear that there is room--there must be room--for all in these struggles. She posits that difference is not what actually divides us, but silence (especially about those differences), whether internal (e.g., suppressing one's emotions and knowings even to oneself) or external.


Lorde writes that we must not shy away from these differences, emphasizing the importance of self-definition and self-actualization. She is clear that we cannot cross what divides us--gender, sexuality, race--unless and until we can both define ourselves and allow others to do the same for themselves. Too often, however, we draw lines around various parts of identity, forcing people to choose between parts of themselves through "threats of labelling, vilification and/or emotional isolation" (p. 47). In this process, Lorde writes, energy is spent fighting over crumbs of the system, rather than dismantling a divisive, oppressive system that offers very few people real chances for flourishing. Lorde is clear that "one oppression does not justify another" (p. 63) and that "in order to come together we must recognize each other" (p. 70).


In these essays, Lorde's powerful critiques also challenge many conceptions the white, Western academy tends to have toward what is "worthy" reading, writing, or scholarship, in other words, what is worth knowing and learning, reading and studying. For instance, her essay "Poetry is Not a Luxury" states that poetry "give[s] name to those ideas which are--until the poem--nameless and formless, about to be be birthed but already felt" and that in this process "those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us" (p. 36). Repeatedly, Lorde emphasizes the importance of affect, especially as a "hidden source of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes" (p. 37). In the academy, poetry and emotion may be subjects of study, but they are generally not sources of knowledge, or as Lorde writes, "sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas" (p. 37). In another essay, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," Lorde writes about the dangerous false conception that women must repress the erotic ("that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge" [p. 53]). In "Uses of Anger," she outlines transforming anger into action, liberation, information, and empowerment, not suppressing it or allowing it to be labeled as useless, disruptive, or guilt-inducing. Much of her writing, because it is about herself, about affect, about oppression and difference, done without footnoting or citations, troubles what the academy values by succinctly laying out knowledge that has the possibility of creating transformation.


In the 1983 "Introduction" to the book, Nancy K. Bereano wrote that "Audre Lorde's writing is an impulse toward wholeness" (p. 9). Indeed, Lorde's speeches and essays in this book outline an example of what it means to struggle to live more humanly. At the same time, she continually reminds her readers that "the war against dehumanization is ceaseless" (p. 119) and that "any future vision which can encompass all of us, by definition, must be complex and expanding, not easy to achieve" (p. 136). Lorde's writing is powerful; it dares me--and I doubt I am alone here--to be brave.


Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007 edition. (originally published 1984)

Nine years after the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, the issues of racial profiling, prisoner abuse, and anti-Muslim (and presumed Muslim) sentiment still abound. Thus, Puar's book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times is both pertinent and compelling. Pairing together two unlikely positionalities--that of the terrorist and the queer-- Puar constructs a cogent argument about the way in which what she calls "homonationalism" is deployed in order to separate U.S. national gays and lesbians from queer and racial others, betraying a "collusion between homosexuality and American nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay queer subjects" (39). In other words, the white, heteronormative American nation relies upon non-heternormative sexualities to differentiate barbarism from civilization, to differentiate "us"-- good, liberal Americans from "them"--the Muslims, the Arabs, the Sihks, the queers, the terrorists. In this way, gays and lesbians actually become complicit in the very heteronormative configurations that work to subordinate them. Expanding on the work of Ray Chow, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben, Puar traces her argument through theories of sexual exceptionalism, the ascendancy of whiteness, affect and assemblage.

In Chapter 2: Abu Ghraib and U.S. Sexual Exceptionalism, Puar argues that the torture of prisoners committed at Abu Ghraib has been constructed by the U.S. media and political leaders as "exceptional" or contrary to American culture, morals and politics. Analyzing President Brush's statement that the prison guards' "treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people," Puar argues that US exceptionalism discourse has been used to dissociate the acts of violence and sexual torture performed from the prison guards who performed them. In her analysis, Puar draws on several photographs taken at Abu Ghraib and released during 2005, including the now infamous picture of a pyramid of nude men and Lynndie England dragging a prisoner by a dog collar. By claiming that these acts of torture do not "reflect the nature of the American people," they are instead re-configured as reflective of the "nature" of the Iraqi prisoners themselves. Setting up a dichotomy between the conservative and homophobic Muslim East and the liberal and tolerant West, the U.S. "capitalizes on the cultural difference discourse, nearly claiming that the repressive culture of Mulsim extremism is responsible for the potency of the torture, in effect blaming the victims" (91). Thus, the sexual torture perpetrated against the Iraqi prisoners is re-constituted as a necessary strategy of war-- a method of punishment designed specifically to attack the prisoners' cultural mores. As such, this form of torture is positioned as offensive only to the homophobic and sexually repressed prisoners, and not the liberal minded American guards or American public. In so doing, the possibility for and existence of homosexual and queer Muslims is erased. Problematizing this rhetoric, Puar asks us to consider "whether these acts of torture really reveal anything intrinsic or particular to American culture" (109-10) [emphasis mine].

 

Chapter 3: Infinite Control, Infinite Attention takes up the U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence and Garner v Texas (2003) which decriminalized consensual adult sodomy at the federal level.  Rather than seeing this as a gay rights victory, Puar draws our attention to the language of the majority decision, authored by Justice Anthony M. Kenneedy. By favoring a broader privacy argument over a narrower, equal protection argument, the Supreme Court privatizes queer sex, "rendering it hidden and submissive to the terrain of the domestic (subjected to insidious forms of surveillance), an affront to queer public sex cultures that sought to bring the private into the public" (118). Echoing Katherine Franke, Puar argues that by sanctioning sodomy solely by virtue of it's placement in the private realm, Lawrence-Garner tacitly re-criminalizes it outside of the bedroom, in the public sphere. Decided only two years after 9/11 and at the height of the U.S. 'war on terror,' Lawrence-Garner's inclusion of gay and lesbian subjects as protected citizens is perpetrated largely at the expense of racialized subjects. In particular, the private is constructed as a racialized (white) and nationalized (American) space which is granted only to citizens and withheld from non-citizens (non-white, non-American). Thus, Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and other "terrorists" are excluded both from heterosexuality and upright homosexuality. This "reracialization of sodomy elsewhere...allows for the sanitation of [the white citizen's] intimiate sexual being," further legitimizing gays and lesbians and the expense of racialized others (120). This notion of intimacy is a significant part of the affective economy Puar details throughout her book.

 

Chapter 4: The Turban is Not a Hat examines the pervasive confusion between the turbaned Sihk man and the so called Muslim "terrorist" in post-9/11 America. Puar argues that "the widespread campaigns undertaken by liberal Sikh advocacy groups to educate 'ignorant Americans' about Sikhs, focusing on who Sikhs are (not terrorists but peace-loving good Americans, model minority immigrants, our turbans look like this) and who they are not (Muslims, terrorists, our turbans do not look like that), while important do not address the affective economies that conflate resemblance and misrecognition" (188). As Puar explains, these campaigns focus on the visual and assume that these differences really matter, rather than getting at the core issue which she sees as the "affective" response that many Americans feel towards "terrorist" bodies.  She argues that the anxiety surrounding the impossibility of containment-- and the fear of contagion-- have lead to the fiction of a feared object: the turban and its attendant "terrorist" body.  Examining the frequent request (particularly at airports) for Sikh men to remove their turbans, Puar asserts that the turban has appropriated the status of a weapon. The turban, fused with the body of its wearer, becomes like the bomb strapped to the body of a suicide bomber. As such, the turban--or weapon--ceases to be merely a tool used by the body and, instead, becomes an assemblage--an unmistakable and potentially deadly part of the terrorist body.

 

This concept of the Deleuzian assemblage is elaborated in Puar's conclusion Queer Times, Terrorist Assemblages and put into conversation with the intersectional model of identity discussed by theorists such as Kimberly Crenshaw and Cathy Cohen. Unlike intersectionality, which presumes that the components of gender, sexuality, class and race intersect with one another yet can be separated and disassembled, an assemblage takes into consideration the "interwoven forces that merge and dissipate time, space, and body against linearity, coherency, and permanency" (212). Instead of privileging naming, meaning, and visuality, assemblage emphasizes ontology, feeling and affect which allows us understand the workings of power beyond disciplinary models. Furthermore, queerness as assemblage troubles the queer/non-queer binary while underscoring its complicity with dominant forces.

 

Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times is both unique and thought-provoking in its careful examination of the often overlooked associations among race, queer sexualities, and U.S. nationalism which depends upon the exclusion of the terrorist body and its nebulous sexual and racial positionalities. Perhaps Puar's most salient point is that her project, and ours as critical readers and scholars, is not excavate the queer terrorist, or queer the terrorist.  Rather, queerness is always already present in the act of naming the terrorist.

Book Review: Teaching to Transgress

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Hey y'all,

So I've been working on my book review of bell hooks's Teaching to Transgress since before spring break, and I couldn't figure out what was taking so long.  Then as I was doing the final formatting of the document I realized it is twenty pages long.  Um . . . oops. 

I figured it would make more sense to upload a file attachment than to just cut and paste a ginormous blog entry.  Sara, if this is just too long to be useful and you'd like me to do something else, let me know. 

I'm sure you all are shocked to find that I tend to be a rather verbose writer, since I am so pithy and to the point in all my classroom discussions. :)

-Elizabeth



Book Review.doc

Liz and I decided it would be a good idea to try and finish our book review in time for class, in the hopes that - since the book we're reviewing is The Queer Child, or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century by Kathryn Bond Stockton - our review will help round out everyone's reading of the introduction and provoke some interesting discussions in class on Wednesday. So, without further ado, our review!

Book "Review" Assignment

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Last week I asked you to spend some time thinking about the book review assignment--what you want to read, how you want to do the assignment, etc. We will be talking about this class today, but I thought I would also post an entry. You can post your thoughts/questions as comments to this entry.

Here is what I wrote about it in the syllabus: (150 points) You are required to write and post (on our course blog) a review of one of the books from which we are reading an excerpt/chapter.

I created this assignment for several reasons:
  • To give you the opportunity to further explore an author or an argument that we read/discussed in class.
  • To give you a space for publicly engaging with the author's ideas/book
  • To create an archive (for the class and for our real/imagined readers) of sources that relate to the topic of troublemaking.
As I mentioned in class last week, I am open to your suggestions about the assignment. You could do a "standard" book review in which you provide a brief summary of the chapters and a discussion of some critical questions that it raises for you. Another option is to create an extended annotated bibliography of sorts in which you briefly outline the chapters and then discuss the questions it raises for your own research. You could also be creative with your review by doing an imaginary interview with the author--or, you could contact the author with your questions (who knows, they might even answer you!).  Here are some basic guidelines:
  • It must be posted on the blog
  • Roughly 1000 words
  • Discuss the book through the lens of/in relation to troublemaking
  • Due on May 5