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Class Reflection 4/28: The Feminist Killjoy

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As our last "formal" class of the semester, our discussion on happiness and the feminist killjoy seemed to me to nicely wrap up many of the ongoing themes and motifs that have framed our semester together.


Because thinking and writing chronologically is hard for me, even with my tape recording, I am going to jump around and reflect more on the broad ideas that we brought forth, rather than give a play-by-play synopsis of our discussion. I am also going to leave out some of our tangential remarks, and unrelated conversational diverges. Lastly, I apologize in advance if I miss quote or reference someone or something.


Throughout the semester Sara mentioned a few times how much she was looking forward to our class on Ahmed. Having never read Ahmed myself, I couldn't identify with her excited. But now, I have bought Queer Phenomenology and hope to read it over the summer. At the core of the argument to me is the merging to two highly serious questions: the first via Becky, and the second via my own random declarations.  The Ahmed readings and our discussion could easily be simplified to the following - "can you be a feminist and still be a beacon of positivity?" (Why, how, where, and when) and "yeah but then are you a trouble-making or just an asshole?" (Or something else all together?).


After Raechel and I established that we knew have of the trans-folk on the Sociological Images post, and we had a brief conversation about the controversial film, "Ticked off Trannies with Knifes" we turned our attention to Debbie Downer, thanks to Sara's blog posts.  Debbie Downer raised many questions for us in terms of understanding her as a feminist killjoy. Most notably, and almost expectedly, we began our discussion with intention. Was it Debbie Downer's intention to "ruin the moment" or is she just obvious? I raised questions about being the contextual aspect of being a Debbie Downer, (when, where, and how) and we talked about the randomness of some of her assertions. Becky wondered if Debbie the cause or a product of the affect of the "downing" and suggested that there might be some "middle way" to bringing up important (feminist) insights without swashing the conversation.


This thought lead Shannon to ask about the place that naïveté, knowledge, and ignorance play in the feminist killjoy.  If we take Ahmed's definition of the feminist killjoy to be someone who interrupts a moment of uncritical acceptance/performance of a socially constructed notion of "happiness," Shannon, Becky, Sophie and Raechel want us to link this to the idea that "ignorance is bliss" and that the feminist killjoy is ending a privileged kind of naïveté.


Like she has in many other discussions, Sophie then asked us to address the theoretical definition of the terms we were using and the terms the theorist was interrogating. For Sophie, and I agree with her, Ahmed was working with "happiness" in a very binary framework throughout the "Killing Joy" piece. In Sophie's understanding of it, the happiness Ahmed was speaking of was a very particular heteronormative, socially validated, happiness, and asking feminists to embrace the opposite, not the "unhappy" but the "non- happy." I believe we all agreed that Ahmed was indeed speaking of this particular kind of happiness, and felt equally troubled by the seemingly binary depiction of happy and non happy that were positioned as options.


For Sophie this is nothing new, and for Sara it is a direct response to the growing, but undeniable Aristotelian, discourse on our pursuit of happiness. This lead to me to express my frustration with the Western framework that Ahmed was using. Certainly, she was answering to a specific genealogy of thought, and we cannot fault her from not referencing another framework, but I agree with Sophie in that none of this is new. In fact, her entire argument and call for the significance of the feminist killjoy, is what Buddhist/Eastern philosophy understands as The Middle Path, The EightFold Path, The Four Noble Truths, and essentially the circle of Nirvana and Namsara. I will spare you all my crazy connections here, but its real. lol.


Raechel turned our conversation to the other Ahmed article we read and the idea of unhappiness in terms of a queer politics. After Elizabeth's anecdote about her sister's wedding we discussed how this script of happiness pervades everything, and how queers do or do not interrupt that script. Raechel (brilliantly, I think) connected this to "Judy B's" ideas of intelligibility and livability. I asked us to also think about "non-happiness" in terms of "being beside oneself". Although these connections and questions were raised we really didn't go much farther into this, other than saying that we wished both JB and Ahmed did more to connect theory to practicality. I am certain we could have gone on and on about the theoretical overlap and difference here, but we got distracted with our plans to get " I <3 JB" and "WWJBD" tattoos. (Which should really happen, BTW).


Sara cleverly pivoted our tattoo aspirations into a discussion of her dissertation project on virtue ethnics. Becky proclaimed that in light of this conversation the "whole order of things" needs to shift, (how we understand the purpose of life, happiness, etc) asking, "how we got here" as a culture. And I again expressed my frustration that Ahmed was presenting these thoughts as something new, when these exactly conceptions and questions have been being asked (and answered) in the "east" for thousands of years. You all know how I am.


Sophie wondered if this entire conversation was misguided to begin with, because really no one is actually happy. We all thought a moment about this, and seemed to agree but continued the dicussion unwaveringly. Raechel then raised questions in terms of how privilege is related to the feminist killjoy. Do killjoys have a certain amount of privilege that distances them from the oppression they are invoking and allows them to invoke it? And/or do those whose joy is killed have a certain amount of privilege to allow them to ignore the oppression the killjoy invokes? As always we concluded that the answer is complicated and complex.


Our discussion then turned to idea of being a killjoy on accident, simply by existing. We wondered if this was the same kind of killjoy or different in some way than an intentional killing of joy. This brought us around again to intention, because we had yet to decide if feminists were intending to kill joy or trying to do something else. Becky and Sophie began to talk about how guilt was connected to having your joy killed, and Raechel, Sara, and Elizabeth joined the conversation by discussing the productive and/or nonproductive aspects of guilt. Lastly, we returned to my brother's "19 and drunk" humor and how humor can both be killed by feminists and used by feminists to raise consciousness.


Although we did not come to many conclusions, our conversation as a whole was quite productive (even with Mr. Roboto, tattoo planning, and references to the Vagina Monologues and Steven Colbert). I think it is safe to say that we understand the feminist killjoy as a troublemaker, if indeed an important and often problematic one. All of us had personal experiences as the feminist killjoy, and our lasting questions seemed to revolve around the lived-reality, and utility of the killjoy and the related state of "non-happiness." I wont speak for the rest of you, but our conversation sparked a number of ideas for me that I plan on exploring futher, in a critically "non-happy" manner. :-)


Back in December I wrote a blog entry on my blog about Ahmed's "Happiness and Queer Politics." I opened the entry with this image:

Does troublemaking (in the forms that we have discussed throughout the semester or as articulated by Ahmed) really take the fun--and the joy--out of everything?

HAPPINESS: In "Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness," Ahmed asks: "Can we rewrite the history of happiness from the point of view of the wretch" (573)? And then, in describing the purpose of her essay, writes:

I thus offer a different reading of happiness, not simply by offering different readings of its intellectual history but by considering those who are banished from it or who enter this history only as troublemakers, wretches, strangers, dissenters, killers of joy (573).
What should/does the history of happiness from the perspective of troublemaking look like? What is happiness? How can we think about happiness and Ahemd's idea of unhappiness in relation to Snediker's optimism or Munoz's utopias or Laclau's/Mouffe's horizon of hope?

UNHAPPY ARCHIVES: Where does Ahmed's call for an unhappy archives (573) fit into all of this? At the end of my blog entry on last week's readings, I offered Halberstam's passage about expanding the archive of bad feelings:

halberstam.pngIs this part of the unhappy archives? Is Halberstam talking about unhappy queers and feminist killjoys here? Are there other ways to think about what the unhappy archives could be (and what could be included in them)?

GIDGET: In discussing conditional happiness, Ahmed cites the novel Émile, "A good girl finds her own happiness in the happiness of a good man" (579), which reminds me of Gidget and her "grandmother's saying" that hangs on her wall:

What is conditional happiness and how do feminist killjoys and unhappy queers challenge/subvert/resist it?

DINNER: Now, I am not sure that we would consider Debbie Downer a feminist killjoy, but Ahmed's discussion (in both "Killing Joy" and "Happiness and Queer Politics") about the polite politics at the dinner table reminded me of the SNL skit (with Rachel Dratch) in which Debbie Downer "ruins" Thanksgiving dinner for her family:

Here is what Ahmed writes on page 582:


What do we make of this clip? How does humor function in this skit? What kind of killjoy is Debbie Downer? Is she a feminist one--or some other type? Can we envision her killing of joy as ever being productive or leading to transformation? Or is it easy to dismiss? (I keep thinking of Angela's earlier distinction between the troublemaker and the asshole--could we fit in the "Debbie Downer" as another category? Should we?) In case you're interested, I have written briefly about Debbie Downer on my blog, here.

Okay, I also can't resist adding in this humorous clip that envisions the woman (is she a feminist killjoy?) killing the joy at a dinner party by speaking her mind and thinking too much:


Is she a feminist killjoy? Starting on page 584, Ahmed discusses "consciousness and unhappiness." Referring back to Rousseau, she writes, "it is interesting that the danger of unhappiness is associated with women having too much curiosity" (584). Consider this passage in relation to the video clip:

We might explore how imagination [being curious and thinking critically] is what allows women to be liberated from happiness and the narrowness of its horizons (585).
THE HAP: Ahmed wants to disentangle happiness from the future (futures promises/events, like a wedding) or from any end goal (Aristotle's teleology). She wants us to envision happiness as possibility (the hap/happens). For her, happiness is not a promise or an inevitable outcome of certain, very constrained and often heteronormative, activities. It is a sense of possibility that is kept open by the refusal to be happy or a willingness to stay not (or un) happy. Ahmed suggests that this type of not/un-happiness is not all wretched, miserable or joyless. Instead, she writes:

There can be joy in killing joy. And kill joy we must, and we do.
What does/could this joy look like? Is this queer optimism?
Before we got into our readings, Sara brought up Flash Mobs, a phenomenon that seems to be all the rage these days. We discussed how this is or is not a form of trouble making, and what it means when an ostensibly "spontaneous" event is actually planned in advance (and advertised publicly in advance).  Then we watched Jamie Oliver&friends do choreographed stirfry.  

Sara provided us with an overview of Lee Edelman's No Future, explaining it as a critique of "reproductive futurism." The basis of our conversation started from the question: "What does it mean to talk about utopia and antirelationality in relation to troublemaking?" To answer this, we drew from Snediker's response to Edelman's critique of Annie. We watched Little Orphan Annie sing "Tomorrow," (and established that she says "I love ya, tomorrow," not "I'll love ya tomorrow").  After the clip, Elizabeth suggested that instead of seeing this as optimism, perhaps it could be better read as a "survival strategy." That is, those in impoverished or other marginalized conditions have no choice but to live as though it might get better. We wondered together if "hope" and "optimism" is the same, and, Sophie asked, which of them is more likely to drive radical action? Sophie pushed this, "Can you be pessimistic but still engage." I answered, "Isn't every Leftist?" We brought it back to Annie, and wondered what it meant for a positionality that had no space for desire in the present, only the future; thus, the negativity or positivity can exist only symbolically.

We stayed with Annie a bit longer. Elizabeth wanted to remind us, in regard to Edelman's thesis, that "queers are reproductive.," and we noted that Annie provides examples of radical reconfigurations of relationships with the other children in the orphanage (which are all white kids in the movie, but we have Jay-Z to edit that narrative with his "Hardknock Life" remix).  We continued to ebb and flow between the positive and negative take-aways from the film, and came next with a negative: Couldn't Annie be read as pseudo-propaganda that promotes the myth of "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps?" And can we see how optimism can act as purposeful blinders of reality? Certainly, we agreed, this is a risk, but this is exactly what Snediker tries to challenge. He says Edelman's reading of optimism, using Annie as an exemplar, is not critical, and that there are other ways to frame on posit utopian projects.

We then watched the "Free to Be You and Me" clip, a song performed by a young Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack for the Marlo Thomas children's book special. We interrogated whether or not we could get anything positive out of this video. Becky wondered, Is "hope" to "not change", and if so, doesn't this mean there's no room for growth? Angela stated that autonomy does not exist in terms of change, that change is inevitable, so for MJ and RF to be desiring a certain stagnancy or static-ness is not only not progressive, but also impossible. But perhaps there is some queer-play at work in this video, as it does challenge the heteronormative linear progress script. We talked about the author who noted that "Queers throw the best parties," and the way that queer world-making promotes 'fun' over normative notions of success, not dissimilar to the way children do (and the way that MJ and RF are singing about).  So, we wondered, could we actually see this clip as a site of resistance?

We also briefly mentioned the way that the Right and the Left have seemed to switch places in terms of rhetorical identity on the political spectrum. Although we had Obama campaigning with "hope," we also had McCain as the "Maverick" and Palin as the "Rogue."  How do these rhetorics play out against the rhetoric of fear? Here, Sara brought up Cornell West's notion of "tragic hope," or "tragic comic hope" and related that to our discussion of "cautious optimism."

Our next clip was from the film "Gidget." We watched a scene in which Gidget is lamenting that she could "just parish from shame for coming home pure as the driven snow." [Note: We determined that, due to the year the film was released, that being "not pure" would have meant being pinned or kissed, not "going all the way"].  We also pointed out the picture on her wall that read "To Be a Real Woman is to Bring Out the Best in a Man." We drew from Snediker to talk about Gidget's "shame," and what this meant in terms of shattering visions of the optimistic.

Our fourth clip was from the film "The Examined Life," where we watched an interview with Avital Ronell.  She talked about how it is "easier to live life with directions of what is right and wrong," but that "anxiety allows for experimentation."  Ronell observed that Bush shows no anxiety for sending prisoners to the death penalty, and so we are being told that a good conscious is worthless. Ronell states that "a responsible person thinks they never did anything [worth while for social change]" and that there is "an anxiety about unachieved democracy."

(We then took a break and enjoyed Sophie's delicious vegan cookies!)

When we returned we jumped into Munoz. We read him as saying that collectivity is necessary for utopia, and that the death-drive camp of the queer theory circle fail to look at intersectionality (and is indeed a thesis that privileges the gay, white male). At this point we unpacked why it is that Snediker uses "person" over "subject," and assess that this is a strategic move that challenges the way that "subject" becomes nothing more than theoretical jargon that does not allow for persons to be, or for concrete daily modalities to be intelligible. Furthermore, Snediker agrees with Munoz that the death-drive is not a good model, and polemicizes, "one does not shatter when one is fucked." Sara also brought us back to the point Munoz makes about the way a singer does something to a song that allows them to inhabit words differently. Sara asked, "Is the shared impulse a feeling/example of optimism?" Angela stated, quite simply: "Yes."

At this point Florence gave her presentation on the film "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." We watched the song "Wig In a Box," in which Hedwig sings about wearing her wigs to transform "until [she] wakes up and turns back to [her]self."  Florence gave really insightful analsysis on themes of containment (wig in a box as queer appropriation), and how the film should be read as more of a comedy than a tragedy. There is a transformative moment for Hedwig only when she perform in front of an audiences. Florence poses, "If she cannot be herself for real, she is going to exaggerate playing with her identity." Again, we see optimism as a survival stragey. We also bring in the idea of Queer Affect: use of angery and melancholy, and Hedwigs dancing trance to express anger when words are not available. We also read Hedwigs identity as a performed identity (and also a disidentification). The wig is transformative, but is also "not natural." We wonder aloud about the meaning o fthe backup singer who is either FTM or MTF, maybe? (Maybe the not-knowing is the whole point!).  To conclude, we discuss the implications of Plato's Symposium, upon which Hedwig is partly based, and the idea that everyone has a partner to whom they used to be attached, and that, although some combos were man/man and woman/woman, there were still always just two ("Why two?!"-JB).  

As usual, we didn't exactly have many answers, but there seemed to be a consensus that there is potentiality in optimism and the belief in utopia, but, yes, a *critical * utopia and optimism.

...and, since it's finals time, I think that hope and optimism is starting to manifest as a survival strategy for all of us too. : )

In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman has some harsh words for Annie , both her optimistic vision of the future and her figuring as the (only) Future. Snediker discusses Edelman and Annie in his essay on queer optimism, writing:

If Edelman opines that all forms of optimism eventually lead to Little Orphan Annie singing "Tomorrow," and therefore that all forms of optimism must be met with queer death-driven irony's "always explosive force" (31), I oppositely insist that optimism's limited cultural and theoretical intelligibility might not call for optimism to be rethought along non-futural lines (26).

How does optimism function in this song? Can we imagine an idea of optimism that does not rely on a futural promise in the ways that Annie does? Must a belief in (the possibility of) better futures always look like this?

Here's another vision of optimism, from the Micheal Jackson/Roberta Flack song in Free to be...You and Me. [For more on this song and its connections to hope and troublemaking, check out my blog entry, Michael Jackson, the 1970s version (pre-MTV, pre-surgery, pre-loss of hope, pre-spectacle)]


What vision of hope and/or optimism is present in this video? What similarities/differences do you see between this vision and Annie's vision? How does the future work? Do you see any troublemaking and/or queer possibilities here? How do we read this song in relation to/against Snediker's vision of queer optimism and its non-futural production of positive affects?

After discussing how Butler and Bersani seem to rely uncritically on melancholy and self-shattering as unquestioned foundations (and figurations) of the subject, Snediker discusses queer optimism in relation to Sedgwick and shame. He contrasts hope-as-horizon with shame as occurring in "a lavish present tense" (18) and wonders, "What if the field of queer optimism could be situated as firmly in the present tense as shame" (18)?  Then, he briefly mentions the link between shame and embarrassment, the "I could just die" moment, which he suggests is exemplified by Sandra Dee. Having just watched the last part of Gidget on AMC, I couldn't resist adding a clip of her uttering a slightly different version of this phrase (fast forward to 9 minutes in):


Just for fun, check out how Gidget's mom responds to Gidget's declaration that she "could just perish" (beginning of clip) and Gidget's turn toward hyper-optimism (?)/joy/elation at the end of the clip (7:30 in).


Why does Snediker spend so much time discussing shame? What is he trying to do with his discussion of the coherence/continuity-as-queer optimism that shame disrupts (24)?

To round out my examples here, I want to throw in a clip from a documentary I watched this past week, Examined Life. This clip is from Avital Ronnel and is about the "ethics of anxiety."


How can we add Ronell's vision of an ethical of anxiety into our conversation? Where would we fit it in our different visions/versions of hope, optimism, utopias? How might it fit/not fit with Mouffe/Laclau and their discussion of a hope predicated on the unrealizability of democracy, passion and a plurality of antagonisms?

One final set of questions: What is queer optimism and how does it work? What sort of concrete practices/affects/moods/emotions are involved here? How can we put Sneidker's ideas into conversation with Munoz and disidentification and risking utopianism? What about Halberstam and their claim for an expansion of the "gay male archive" of feelings? Halberstam writes:

Class Reflection-- April 14, 2010

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Please put your hands together and welcome the class summary "The Troublemaker as Disciplinary Problem: The Child."  We got class off to a romping good start with a discussion of my personal hero, Paula Dean, who has a show on QVC. We briefly discussed the possibility of queering QVC, at which point I kind of got sad that I didn't do that for my paper.

We then turned to my new favorite viral video (brought to us by Sophie) about a young boy whose desire to be a single lady transcends gender norms.  Although we noted that the boy forced his dad (and the viewers of the video) to question his assumptions about gender roles, not all of us were convinced that he was a real troublemaker, since he probably didn't intend to be subversive.  More likely, he just felt left out of the group-- Raechel suggested that he was more interested in community than gender.  Jumping briefly back to Althusser, Jessie proposed that the little boy's gender, his position as queer or as an outsider, is hailed into existence when he is told that he can't be a single lady.  Then we found out that Becky really likes to listen to misogynistic pop music (seconded), suggesting that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a really epic pop song is just a really epic pop song.  Raechel referred back to Willett, suggesting that humor creates a liminal space of potentiality, which can be a pedagogical moment (eg., when the dad tells us that he is "a horrible father").  We concluded our reveries with the sober recollection of the Star Wars youtube kid, who apparently had to switch schools because he was made fun of so much. 

Next, we asked what the link between childhood and troublemaking might be.  Because children's troublemaking might be dismissed as just playfulness, they may have the opportunity to be more subversive; on the other hand, their efforts are less likely to be taken seriously.  What do we think of children as political and moral agents in their own right?  To answer these questions, we turned to the troublemaker's children's book.  First, we noticed the connection between troublemaking and punishment in the stories.  Problematically, the book showed all troublemakers-- from Columbus to Rosa Parks-- as performing the same kind of trouble.  In particularly, we were bothered by the last line of the story, which suggested that there will always be troublemakers getting punished, but let's not let it be you or me.  Angela wanted to know why we shouldn't want to be troublemakers, and again wondered what the distinction between troublemaking and being an asshole might be.  Liz pointed out that the book suggests that as long as you get away with your trouble, it's okay. 

Florence wondered whether the book was hoping to inculcate readers with a fear of punishment.  We took some time to consider the implications of a "time-out" as opposed to other forms of punishment.  Jessie suggests that the time-out, which separates you from everyone else because of your non-normative behavior, provides pressure to normalize.  In this context isolation is presented as a bad thing, and something to be avoided.  Angela wondered if we should make a distinction between punishment that follows directly from a decision (ie., I don't brush my teeth, so I get a toothache) and punishment that's imposed from outside (ie., I don't brush my teeth and I get whipped).  Jessie also pointed out that the book suggests that we might make trouble when we are "feeling full of ourselves"; does this mean that the suffragettes wanted the vote because they were egotistical?  We turned to Florence for a European perspective-- she suggested that kids in France are more likely to be spanked than those in the US.  We also talked about other methods of discipline, like writing lines (which prompted a brief digression into Harry Potter's encounter with Dolores Umbridge and her magic quill which carved words into the writer's skin), or public shame.  We learned that the CA public school system is not as enlightened as we all thought, when Jessie informed us that they used Dunce caps in her elementary school.  Shannon trumped this with her story about a teacher who threatened to put adult diapers on his students.

SUPERNANNY!!!  She is all about the time out.  Angela then gave us a pretty excellent story of her own time-out history, which generally resulted in a lot of tears and overturned furniture.  What if kids just refuse to be controlled?  We decided that we should write our own kids books.

Angela shared a conversation she had with her 7 year old nephew about trans folk.  We wondered whether there are appropriate levels of information for each age group/maturity group.  Sophie's mom suggested (via Sophie) that people always grow up AND sideways, not just children.  We agreed with this statement wholeheartedly.  Jessie wondered if this desire to control "levels" of information about sex ed might reflect concerns that if kids know too much about sex, they might do it.  Angela brought our attention to page 3 of the Queer Child reading, where the author proposed that the right wing has relied on homosexuality to construct the way they relate to children (as potential victims, as pliable moral creatures).  The fear seems to be that if children learn about something, they will become it.  This takes about the child's agency and her ability to make her own sexual decisions, as Shannon pointed out.  We turned to that oft-repeated yet fairly meaningless phrase "sexually active," wondering what that conveys in a practical sense.  A lot of sex ed seems to rely on a politics of shame, a politics that Becky points out does not work on senile old people, who have no qualms masturbating or peeing in public.  Florence was really interested in the idea of asexuality; does this mean that someone is never interested in any sexual contact, not interested in sex with anyone but themselves, only interested in certain sexual activities?  We discussed how discourses about homosexuality (and sexuality in general?) suggest that there is a single moment of knowing, and that this is a permanent transition; what about persons who come to a gradual decision about their sexuality, or whose sexuality changes and changes back overtime? 

My personal favorite class moments came during the break, when we started discussing the animated characters we had the hots for as children.  Jessie vehemently advocated for the Little Mermaid, a suggestion that was generally approved of and which might even represent a trans narrative; other suggestions included Fifel from Fifel Goes West and the evil bad guy from Sailor Moon.  We talked about the ways in which children learn about sex through Barbie; at least three representatives of the class rainbow team recalled playing lesbian Barbie as youths (holla!).  Jessie raised a question about the tenses in which childhood sexuality was discussed in our articles; children either look forward to the day when they will have a sexual partner, or they look back on their childhood as adults and try to determine how they were; children are either not yet straight, or their queerness is assigned in memory by their adult self.  Is there ever a space for children to experience their sexuality in the present?  Perhaps this is complicated by children's inability to express their thoughts completely; is this an even greater problem for queer kids?  Sophie suggests that every child has sexual/romantic urges and object choices that they don't have the language to express; she recalls being crazy for Swayze and not having the language to express that feeling.  But Angela argued that a straight child still has a greater ability to express desire than a queer child, since a straight object-choice fits into the dominant heteronormative discourses. 

We wondered why adults don't talk to their kids about these sexual desires; is it because we think of children as innocent?  Because we think of talking with a child about sex is voyeuristic or pedophilic?  Or just because many people don't want to discuss their sex lives with their families?  We wondered if sexual desire is the same as attraction; we answered with a resounding no, but admitted that the distinction was blurry. 

Reflecting on the days of our youth, we came to the conclusion that public representations of childhood sexuality have drastically changed with our generation.  Examples included: the pre-KFed Britney Spears of the virgin/whore persuasion; Hannah Montana and her stripper poll; Twilight and the yearning, pulsating hearts of abstinent mythical creatures; and the promise ring that Disney purportedly insists its stars wear.  The promise ring seemed especially creepy because it represented a contract between father and daughter; is this an Oedipal situation, or a throwback to the idea of women as chattel?  A discussion of the Mystical Realm of the Rhododendron ensued. 

Becky brought up the Bristol Palin PSA, which encourages girls to not pregnant unless you are really rich and your parents will bail you out (the "pause" in the commercial resonated nicely with the idea of a time-out).  The time-out also seemed to represent the sexual "delay" that discourses about childhood sexuality rely on; there is a delay between liking Julia Roberts, for example, and knowing that this was a lesbian crush.  Is this an enforced delay? Shannon pointed out that adults are not allowed to play (she brought up the example of swinging on swings) unless they are playing competitive sports, or role-playing in the bedroom. 

At the end of class, we considered cultural anxieties about pedophilia.  Becky was a bit troubled that the readings seemed to dismiss the possibility that pedophilia can be traumatic for children.  Angela argued that maturity and age are not necessarily correlated.  I wondered about the ways in which our cultural emphasis on the trauma and horror of rape, pedophilia, etc. might actually make the experience worse for victims.  And Sara brought up the point that discourses about sex predators actually rely on a fantasy of the child as a victim for their rhetorical power.

All in all, it was a very lively discussion, and I might add that the snacks were particularly well done this week.  Good luck to all of us as the semester hurtles dramatically towards it's end!

In our class on laughter and being "beside oneself," we brought up some really productive questions. Instead of being totally chronological in this class reflection, I'd like to highlight a few of the questions we asked and how we went about answering them.

Raechel's Question: What are the effects of mass media? Can we "know" what these are without denying the ability of viewers to make their own interpretive choices? 
Raechel's background in communication studies prefaced this discussion, since this is a central question in her field - and a question that determines, to some extent, the legitimacy of communication studies as a discipline. But, rather than answering this question directly, we focused on another, broader question:

What do we do when watching TV? Or... what does TV do to us?

Class reflection (3 March 2010) - Staring

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Here I am, finally, ready to post this class reflection on that very prolific topic that we "looked" at a little while ago now, I concede, on the way we stare. Maybe I could say that my insight on our class discussion has benefited from my spending the time to think about how I can apply some of our interrogations to my current work (for my Masters thesis) on the movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

"Once I did it [dealt with anger] in silence, afraid of the weight" (Lorde, Sister Outsider)

"Such an argument challenges any assumption that emotions are a private matter, that they simply belong to individuals and that they come from within and then move outwards towards others" (Ahmed, 2004)

"Let's face it. We're undone by each other" (Butler, Undoing Gender)

"Have we ever yet known the human?" (Butler, Undoing Gender)

There was a reason for so much reading this week: Sara explained that one way she likes to make trouble is to put different readings and ideas into conversation with each, especially those that might not usually be grouped together. Thus, the readings for this week asked us to look at "troubling" emotions and how they relate to our interactions with other people. More specifically, how do our emotions lead us to identify who is human and who is not? How can emotions lead us closer to or further away from exploring our common vulnerabilities? How do we work through these together?

Perhaps not surprisingly, my notes from the class are largely in the form of questions we raised, so this reflection will be mostly in that form.

We began our conversations on "excess" emotions (ones that are troubling, unsettling, disturbing, dangerous) with Liz's reflection on her experience of confronting racism in a restaurant when she and two First Nations' friends were accused of "dining and dashing." When Liz challenged the server's racially coded language around "those people," one of her friends questioned her on being angry on someone else's behalf. Some ideas folks raised around these situations:

  • troubling "extrapolating minority status" (e.g., assuming that being gay means you get a "pass" on being racist)

  • an injustice to one is injustice to all (paraphrase from M. L. King Jr.)

  • Do voices from privileged positions effectively legitimate struggles against oppression? What about when people with privilege have access to private, oppressive discourse (i.e., they can challenge oppression because they hear it when the same words would not be spoken in front of someone from an oppressed group)? Does it trouble assumptions? Or does it speak for someone else, making assumptions that people don't have voices?

  • Who suffers consequences by making trouble?

  • What does solidarity mean? How do privileged people work to take a back seat? How do we do the difficult work of "solidifying"?

  • As folks in the academy, how do we find what will deactivate accusations of academic privilege?

  • If you espouse non-identity based struggles, don't you have to be outraged to join what might be seen as someone else's struggle?

  • If oppressions are interconnected, what is the relation to "excess" emotions to "being beside oneself"? Is anyone left out of this community of interlocking oppressions (since we all live within the same system)? Does being outside/beside oneself mean being detached from feelings or signify a disconnect between the self and the world?

  • Is emotion on or in the self?

  • What is the relationship between individual and collective feelings? How do collective feelings objectify others?

  • What differences are there in how emotions manifest? (For instance, two different ways that anger manifests are reasoned anger [e.g., that manifests in political organizing work against oppression] and as a visceral, in the moment response [such as the one Liz had in the restaurant].)

Defining what it means to be human

Taking up Butler, we talked about whether the process of accounting for who is human necessarily requires excluding some people in order to make yourself/your group intelligible. If this is problematic, what kind of definition of "human" are we seeking? How do we leave the conception of "human" open so that we can constantly interrogate it? On the other hand, if we leave this definition open, it might lead to narrowing definitions of human that result, for instance, in having to specify "women's human rights" because the category of human does not cover/include women. So how does the act of claiming "human" open up conversations and space and resignify norms? How do we address the common experience of vulnerability? We must also recognize that the risks we take in claiming humanity are going to have consequences we cannot foresee.

Performing Gender

Following up on Sophie's post on parenting, we asked a number of questions:
  • What play is allowed? How would the experience be different if a child who challenges gender norms is a son?

  • What role does being "readable" (e.g., in terms of dress) have? How does this related to being intelligible as a human?


What role does intent play in these feelings? For instance, do you get "credit" for trying to do something good even if it is problematic (e.g., sending money for Haitian earthquake relief)? Who gets to decide when to "move past" hurt or past oppression? Does issuing an apology mean that the person who committed the wrong (or is apologizing) is getting to decide that it is now time to be over (no more complaining allowed)? Is catharsis the link with intention--and who this catharsis is for (e.g., if it is about the self of the one who was not the recipient of the hurt/oppression, this is dangerous)?

Some ways the authors addressed this: Ahmed states that gestures of solidarity are okay "insofar as they do not block the hearing of others" (pp. 81-82). Lorde echoes this when she talks about how she had been asked to have anger only in ways that were acceptable to others and that was not okay. Lugones differentiates between first- and second-order anger in that second-order anger might not make sense to the other person but is not intended for that person. 

Finally, Sara noted that this semester we keep coming back to intent as a theme. What does this mean?

Class today began with the presentation of heavily frosted and sprinkled cupcakes, which were enjoyed along with the video Expression = Life: ACT UP, Video and the AIDS Crisis. The fact that we were feeding our bodies while watching the bodies of the ACT UP protestors lie "dead" in the street and suffer the "violence" of police brutality did not escape notice--- nor did it stop us from biting into the cupcakes' lemony-vanilla, butter-creamy goodness.


Following the video, Raechel started off our discussion by introducing the readings and summarizing the questions she posted on our blog.  In particular, she highlighted the fact that Foster celebrates the non-violent, direct action of ACT UP, the lunch counter sit ins, and the WTO protestors without problematizing (or "troubling") the concept of non-violence.  While the actions of the protestors themselves were non-violent, as Raechel pointed out, many of the protests were actually designed to provoke others to commit acts of violence against them in order to call attention to their cause.  If this is the case, can these protests still be considered non-violent?


As we began discussing violent vs. non-violent action, and whether Raechel's example of protestors engaging in sex in a Michigan church can be considered an act of "violence," Sophie asked that we define "violence."  In response, we came up with several different classifications of violence: physical violence, emotional violence, psychological violence, intellectual violence, and so on.  While we all seemed to agree on what constituted physical violence, other categories, such as intellectual violence, were more complicated. For Angela, intellectual violence meant plagiarism or stealing someone else's ideas, while, for me, intellectual violence meant someone, like a teacher, telling a student that their ideas were wrong or stupid, thereby inhibiting the student's intellectual growth and development. 


While we were able to conceptualize the difference between physical violence and other, less tangible forms of violence, we struggled to come up with a satisfactory definition.  In fact, some of us, myself included, did not feel that it was possible to come up with such a definition.  Because "violence" has so many different meanings, both negative and positive, that I don't know that it is possible (or productive) to come up with an all-inclusive definition. Turning to outside resources for assistance, Angela used her phone's internet to look up a dictionary definition for "violence," which included "denying someone their full humanity." Immediately, this reminded me and others of Judith Butler's notion of intelligibility and what constitutes a livable life.


Pushing us to think of violence through the lens of troublemaking, Sara asked us: "Is violence morally good or bad?  Or can violence be used a productive form of troublemaking?"


While Angela acknowledged a dislike for concepts like "morality," she said she felt violence (while it could not be explicitly defined) did have negative connotations and that, in her working opinion (which might change throughout the duration of the class), violence could never be justified.  Well, she qualified, not unless it was used in self-defense or as an absolute last resort by someone who was so oppressed that they had no other choice.  In this kind of situation, using violence could be justified if it was absolutely the only way to make one's life and oppression intelligible to others.


Questioning Angela, Shannon asked: "If violence cannot be defined, then how is violence never okay?"


Angela, along with the class, laughed and agreed that Shannon had brought up a good point.


Continuing, Shannon said that, as a white, middle-class female in the US, she could not justify using violence herself because she felt she had the agency and opportunity to find alternative solutions.  However, for people in less privileged situations (i.e. people in war zones protecting their children) there may be instances in which violence would be justified.


Transitioning from our conversation about violence to our readings from Foucault, Raechel brought up the notion of polemics.  Excited to talk about Foucault (one of my department's favorite old, dead white dudes), Sara asked: how do you guys define a polemicist, as articulated by Foucault in our readings?


Pulling out yet another blunt, one-liner, Angela responded: "a polemicist is an asshole, not a troublemaker." 


Expanding on Angela's insightful comment, we, as a class, discussed that Foucault's conception of polemics is limiting. For him, polemics does not allow for conversation between two equals.  Rather, "the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for truth but an adversary , an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat" (112).  In other words, a polemic is unproductive because the participants are not willing to listen to one another or have their positions challenged.  Rather, they are certain of their beliefs and are unilaterally focused on convincing one another that they are correct.  In fact, this could be seen as denying the other participant in the polemic their full humanity.  Thus, no new idea can come from a polemic.


"What then is an alternative to the polemic?" Sara asked.  As a class, we suggested that troublemaking is a good alternative.  By engaging in troublemaking, not only are we questioning not only the status quo, but we are asking questions of one another, of ourselves--we are willing to have our own positions questioned as we question others.  Thus, we are creating the possibility of coming to new understandings or ideas.


Acknowledging that Foucault is often cited as being critical of identity politics, we raised the question of whether it is possible to maintain a critical distance when one has political convictions.  Many of us, myself included, stated that while we can remain critical of the political movements of which we are a part, we cannot maintain distance or objectivity.  Again invoking Butler, Sara suggested that perhaps it is not possible to be distant but, perhaps, it is possible to be "beside oneself." 


With our weekly readings covered, we spent the last few minutes of class discussing Johnny Weir's "fabulous" ice skating, Lady Gaga's sexual practices as discussed with Barbara Walters, and combining "fabulous" with Lady Gaga music through Guerilla Gay Bar.  It is my personal opinion that we should engage in this form of troublemaking at a local Minneapolis hot spot. Minnesota flannel, fur hats, and duck decor--- here we come!


Class reflections: 2/16/10

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Class Reflection for February 16

I got the impression that our discussion included and was centered around more questions than usual, and since we were discussing Judith Butler, this would certainly make sense.   So I feel a bit like in my reflection, I'm re-positing all the questions we discussed.  We started out our class with a question about whether or not Judith Butler's writing has gotten easier to read, and if so, why?  Had she gotten away from troublemaking, or had her troublemaking simply matured?  What about her argument that writing with challenging language is a way of troublemaking?

                These questions on her writing or the intentions of her troublemaking or not (intention seems to have turned into an important theme for the semester) lead to questioning whether or not there is a place for difficult language.  There is a possibility of elitism, of course, but not just that, as jargon is not only found in academia.  This raised the issue of audience, specifically since Butler did not anticipate that many people would read her text Gender Trouble, and it turned into a phenomenon.   Additionally, difficult writing is not restricted to vocabulary, but includes style, structure, and cultural references that are used to say as much as possible in fewer words. 

                From here, we moved on to questioning the possibility of finding elitism in assumptions being made by the academy, notably in who can or cannot read a difficult text.    bell hooks argues that saying that theoretical works are not useful to African-Americans is racist.  Also noted is the reality that while certain "difficult" texts or ideas may still be useful to non-academic groups, there may be little desire within these groups to examine theoretical texts, as a result of time and priority.  Should the works be more readable, perhaps they would gain more readerships.  This informs the notion that curiosity and investigating curiosity is quite a bit of work (reference: "The Curious Feminist"). 

                A distinction was then made, that while sometimes Butler talks of complicated ideas that require complicated writing, sometimes it's just bad writing.  This later turned into a discussion of what good vs. bad writing is, and it was linked to what is critical thinking/critical critique?  It seemed that more than answers, we generated more questions--is there a universal standard for good writing?  A formula?  We discussed the formula, some argued against it (oppressive, doesn't allow for the "self" to come through in your writing), some for it (useful, a guide to how to succeed and hopefully, once tenured (!), the ability to use the knowledge of the formula to dismantle it). 

                From our discussion, Sara presented us with what she heard us define as "good" writing: intelligible, clear and fluid, logical, easy to follow, follows a set of formal rules (I think that's everything!), and most of us agreed that those qualities weren't necessarily what defined good writing.  So we were back to more questions!

                It seems to be that bad writing is easier to define than good writing, yet I still don't know how to put a definition to it.  Was it someone on the Supreme Court who said of how to define pornography--
"I know it when I see it"?  Not sure, but that's exactly how I feel about bad writing--I know it when I see it.  Good writing, unless it's exceptional, to me, just blends in.  I don't notice it as good, I think I tend to take it for granted--something to think about!

                 I see now some notes that I have on our discussion involving Butler's emphasis on intentionally as being important in terms of theory, yet I can't quite understand what my notes indicate--I do remember that this was an important part of the discussion, so I think I must have been concentrating on understanding it too much to write "good" (intelligible!) notes on this.    Anyway, Lugones and her arguments on intentionality were addressed, as well as the responsibility of how a reader engages with the text.  I apologize for my reflection on this aspect of the discussion.  L


Question #2: Elizabeth presented her question on applying modern terms to the past and was this appropriate or not, what responsibility does a historian have in this context?   The discussion centered on the specific example of the word "queer" and is it okay to apply this term to an historical figure who, although they may relate to the concept, would not understand the term.  Also, specifically in this case, the distinction between queer practices and identities is important--it was only recently that queer came to be seen as an identity--so to use the term as a way of imposing an identity on someone who would not have understand it as such would be a misuse of the term.  (Relates to Foucault and the split between practice and identity)

                Somehow this got us onto the question of the idea of Absolute Truth vs. a more relative kind of truth--leading from the motivation to study history, coming at history from varying perspectives, therefore truth can often be thought of as relative.   Given the potential differing opinions here, of what is Truth vs. truth, we wondered if it's possible to trouble our disciplines while preserving the foundation of the discipline.  Again, intention came up as an issue, as well as the importance of honesty.

                We got a slice of Elizabeth's' possible dissertation topic, looking at the trenches as a kind of womb, undermining the usual tropes of war as masculine.  Her question about this was, is it honest to use this metaphor if it's not a sensation the soldiers would have felt (does this undo the foundation, perhaps was the larger, implied question?)


Critical thinking handout: Asking the question Why?  In asking the question why, it's our chance to disobey, to push for more, to refuse the easy answer, even though we're taught it's disruptive to ask the question.

                Butler tells us that the critique comes from the asking why, questioning government command, policy, and it can happen everywhere, not just in academia.  (This seems to indicate to me that critical thinking does not necessarily have to be expressed through difficult writing--if it happens everywhere, it has to be, in certain spaces, expressed in comfortable, understandable language.)

                And of course, we then came back to more questions: Is critical thinking linked to maturity?  How can we reconcile this with troublemaking, which is often linked to immaturity?  Is critical thinking then taking us back to childhood?  Butler indicates that with critical thinking, we are forming ourselves as subjects, and it doesn't have to be a progression with an end, but can be viewed as a forward learning experience.   

                I'm going to end my short novel here--happy end of the week!