Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

On Misplaced Hatred

[This is a response I wrote to Audre Lorde's "Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices," a poem assigned in the online course my friend Alexis Gumbs is teaching: "To Be a Problem: Outcast Subjectivity and Black Literary Production." In conjunction with this post, please read Alexis's comments on sexual violence against black women, "To Be Game."]

The language of this poem is extraordinary. It raises the voices of the dead, so to speak (thank you, Sharon Holland), to create an impression of mourning that's at once singularly personal yet all-too-familiar to victims of sexual violence. I can understand why Lorde might have revised this poem upon hearing it performed: this impression of mourning is as much aural as it is visual, and it's important to try reading parts of "Need" out loud to dwell in its beautiful sadness.

I was particularly affected by Pat's words on p. 11:

What terror embroidered my face
onto your hatred
what ancient unchallenged enemy
took on my sweet brown flesh
within your eyes
came armed against you
with only my laugther my hopeful art
my hair catching the late sunlight
my small son eager to see his mama work?
...

I need you. For what?
Was there no better place
to dig for your manhood except in my woman's bone?

On the same page Bobbie says: "We have a grave need for each other / but your eyes are thirsty / for vengeance / dressed in the easiest blood / and I am closest."

These verses speak back to those perpetrators of sexual violence who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Men must be confronted with the bruised, battered, bloodied flesh that is the outcome of their sexual aggression. In a sense, they must "own" that aggression by bearing witness to its horrible consequences.

At the same time, Pat and Bobbie acknowledge the psychic wounds that fuel the illogic of sexual violence against black women. The idea of "misplaced hatred" (12) resonates throughout Lorde's poem. An "ancient...enemy" is projected onto the black woman's body, and violence is done to that body out of fear, anxiety, self-loathing, and "terror."

Who or what is that ancient enemy? It's not just racism Lorde is speaking of here: it's a radical dehumanization, through racism but also through heteronormative patriarchy and capitalism (which breeds male insecurity and compensatory measures to escape "lack"), of the social and psychic life of black people. This is a problem of black people's oppression tout court as it's tragically played out in the sexual dehumanization of the black female body.

There's a "grave," or urgent, need for black men to realize this problem and to join their sisters in resisting racist-sexist structures of capitalist domination. But that collaboration recedes from the horizon when intergender need is literally taken to the grave -- when black women aren't fellow strugglers and insurgents but are the objects of putatively male needs: sexual gratification, domestic control, and violent, phallic sublimation.

Lorde's troping on the idea of "need" is tragic and visionary. It captures a powerful social dynamic -- a problem of racial, gender, and class politics as they inhere in rape-murder -- and provokes us to ask other questions. What happens when we say -- to lovers, friends, comrades, companions -- "I need you"? Do we really mean it? In what ways do we mean it? On what, or whose, terms?

Or do you say

...you need me you need me you need me
a broken drum
calling me Black goddess Black hope Black
strength Black mother
yet you touch me
and I die in the alleys of Boston...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Derrida Tarries with AutoCorrect

In reading the essays and interviews that comprise Jacques Derrida's Paper Machine (2005), I came across a delightful anecdote about the confrontation between philosophical writing and new technologies of writing and inscription. This from "The Word Processor":
In Circumfession I also gave myself the somewhat random constraint of a software program that, when I got to the end of a paragraph of such and such a length, roughly twenty-five lines, told me: "The paragraph is going to be too long; you should press the Return button." Like an order coming from I know not whom, from the depths of what time or what abyss, this slightly threatening warning would appear on the screen, and I decided to come quietly to the end of this long sequence, after the breathing space of a rhythmic sentence, which did have punctuation, as if rippling with commas, but was uninterrupted, punctuated without a period, if you like -- so submitting the fifty-nine long sentences to an arbitrary rule made by a program I hadn't chosen: to a slightly idiotic destiny... As you know, the computer maintains the hallucination of an interlocutor (anonymous or otherwise), of another "subject" (spontaneous and autonomous, automatic) who can occupy more than one place and play plenty of roles: face to face for one, but also withdrawn; in front of us, for another, but also invisible and faceless behind its screen. Like a hidden god who's half asleep, clever at hiding himself even when right opposite you. (22)
Derrida elaborates on his anecdote by considering how the computer -- this medium of "word processing" -- becomes an Other to our consciousness. In contrast to writing with a stylus or on a typewriter, writing on a computer entails addressing an Other who knows what you are going to say in advance: "you have the feeling that you are dealing with the soul -- will, desire, plan -- of a Demiurge-Other, as if already, good or evil genius, an invisible addressee, an omnipresent witness were listening to us in advance, capturing and sending us back the image of our speech
without delay, face to face -- with the image rendered objective and immediately stabilized and translated into the speech of the Other, a speech already appropriated by the other or coming from the other, a speech of the unconscious as well. Truth itself" (23).

Word processing's immediacy, its seamless ability to add or erase data with a stroke of the keypad, its virtuality -- all these give Derrida the impression that there's a "demon" (23) at work in the computer apparatus, some unknown entity which exerts its magic on us, making us think the words we type on the screen are really, truly our "own." In fact, the demon's trickery makes our writing seem less familiar, more fixed in time (immediate) and space (there, on the screen, "in" the machine). Writing on the computer alters the texture of textuality itself:
The text is as if presented to us as a show, with no waiting. You see it coming up on the screen in a form that is more objective and anonymous than on a handwritten page, a page which we ourselves moved down. So from bottom to top is how things go: this show happens almost above us, we see it seeing us, surveying us like the eye of the Other, or rather, simultaneously, it also happens under the eye of the nameless stranger, immediately calling forth vigilance and his specter. It sends us back the objectivity of the text much faster, and so changes our experience of time and of the body, the arms and the hands, our embracing of the written thing at a distance... That doesn't mean that it perverts or degrades the sign, but it renders other our old sorting out, our familiar altercation, our family scene, if I may call it that, when the written thing first appeared. (24-25)
The Demiurge-Other: a demon that, at least to my mind, would mimic what we say as we write on the computer. Yet, in a strange way, his act of mimicry would precede the act of writing; that is, the text which appears on screen would seem as though it should've always been there, with or without our conscious writerly attention. So it's mimicry with a difference: fidelity to language that has already been worked over by the word-processing apparatus.

Between 1997 and 2007, successive versions of Microsoft Office gave a face and a name to the "internal demon" of word processing. Derrida's comments appeared before the arrival of Clippit, or Clippy, but, just as with his sentence's truncation by AutoCorrect, it wouldn't be unfair to speculate that he would've engaged the much-maligned Help icon by simply shrugging off its "slightly idiotic destiny." Clippit, after all, was only the goofy, literal expression of the processes of technological inscription that had already taken root in our writerly beings.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Farred on SportsCenter

I just discovered Gelf Magazine's interview with Duke University Literature professor Grant Farred on the current state of ESPN's SportsCenter. It's a pretty entertaining read, with Farred coming up with some good one-liners about the qualitative demise of America's original televised sports talk show. Regarding SportsCenter's putatively dumbed-down programming these days, Farred intones, "Proliferation is the death of intelligence."

For a related story on the death of intelligent sports news media, see Josh Levin's "What's Wrong with Sports Illustrated" on Slate.

Frivolous Suit

This is a long overdue follow-up to my post "A Dirty Shame," in which I introduced the case of a Washington D.C. administrative law judge, Roy Pearson, who sued his dry cleaners for $54 million over allegedly missing pants.

It turns out that way back in June a Washington judge dismissed his case. The BBC story on it doesn't specify on what grounds the case was dismissed, but its corresponding video feature (see link to the right of the story) features a U.S. law expert claiming that Judge Pearson was a "pariah" in legal circles and that his job was seriously under threat.

Those words proved to be true enough, as it was recently discovered that Pearson had not been reappointed as a judge when his term expired in May. (The delay in the report had to do with the AP's request going through the motions of the Freedom of Information Act.) While this may be proper punishment for Pearson's outrageous abuse of the justice system, it's but temporary relief from the kind of self-serving legal logic which allowed Pearson to bring forth his suit in the first place. "Satisfaction Guaranteed," we recall, was the very thing Pearson claimed he didn't receive/experience when his pants were "lost" and then compensated for with a lot of money.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Death of a Pugilist

Of the several amusing stories about the life of Norman Mailer, the confrontational don of postwar American letters, in the BBC's obituary for him, I found these to be notable:
Mailer's obsession with masculinity and violence often got him into trouble. He once beat up a sailor on a Manhattan street because he believed that the man had questioned the sexuality of his dog.

In 1971, he head-butted his fellow writer Gore Vidal before a television chat-show after Vidal had written that "there has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression".
In addition to being a respected novelist and biographer, Mailer was a boxer, womanizer, social commentator, and newspaper man (he co-founded The Village Voice). His was the voice of the insurgent American male who saw his "status" as a man socially and culturally diminished in the years following the war.

Critics usually point to his influence on literary contemporaries such as Philip Roth and John Updike. But it seems to me Mailer's shadow is also cast over the work of filmmakers Woody Allen and Terence Malick (notably The Thin Red Line), as well as the "ethnic" writers Ishmael Reed and Frank Chin (in his public dispute with Maxine Hong Kingston). There's also Mailer's contribution to hipster culture, "The White Negro" (1956; reprinted in Advertisements for Myself in 1959). From the beatniks to the Beastie Boys, Mailer influenced generations of disaffected white youth who found soulful expression in cool "black" pose.

Norman Mailer was a figure who, although his books may have fallen out of favor in recent decades, embodied the voice of the modern American man in all his contradictions: bullish yet victimized (by women), brash yet fundamentally insecure.