Friday, January 31, 2014

True Universality
I'm reading Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2013), by Claudia Roth Pierpont (who, despite her maiden name, is no relation to Philip Roth), and I came on a revealing bit.  I'm not a big fan of Roth, though I have read at least a dozen of his books.  He's one of those writers I respect more than I enjoy; I feel the same way about Toni Morrison.  I feel I ought to read his later work, but haven't gotten around to it and don't know when I will.  But Portnoy's Complaint, Roth's 1969 bestseller, made a big impression on me when it was first published.  I was eighteen then and impressionable.  I'd practically memorized The Essential Lenny Bruce, a transcription of that satirical comic's work, a few years before, and Portnoy seemed like more of the same.  Roth and Bruce had the same slightly deleterious effect on my adolescent prose that J. D. Salinger had had a few years before.

Anyway, Pierpont writes:
In 2009, on its fortieth anniversary, Portnoy was awarded an unofficial, retrospective Booker Prize, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, for the best novel of 1969.  A dissenting judge on the jury, the English classicist Mary Beard, complained about the choice in a Times Literary Supplement blog, deriding the book as "literary torture" and a "repetitive, blokeish sexual fantasy."  She was met with a hail of reactions, pro and con, ranging from a heated defense of "the can't-put-it-down vigour of Roth's writing" to derisory comments about his "ethnic stereotypes" and the calmly universalizing assertion that "any man who's grown up in an ethnic-immigrant household in America has his entire life story etched out in the pages of that book" [65].
I think the quotation I've put into boldface is highly revealing.  Beard said, after all, that Portnoy is a blokeish sexual fantasy.  ("Bloke" being Brit for "guy.")

Even I, a queer American male who didn't grow up in an ethnic-immigrant household -- both my parents were several generations off the boat, and neither was Jewish -- found it easy to identify with Portnoy.  But would a woman, most women, any woman feel the same way?  Maybe; women grow up feeling constrained and limited by their upbringing too.  But women are the problem in Roth's book: the mother, the dull sister, the crazy hillbilly girlfriend, the numerous WASP girlfriends, the tough Israeli woman before whom Portnoy is impotent.  It's possible, and desirable, to identify with characters of the other sex: women have been doing it for millennia, and more men do it than is usually recognized.  But it gets old after a while, and the most determined, sympathetic female reader might be disturbed at last by the role women characters play in Portnoy's Complaint.  Considering that women are just over half the population, their reactions to art and entertainment ought to count for something.  Any woman who's grown up in a male-supremacist society -- meaning all of them -- might begin to wonder why her life story isn't etched out in more pages, and get tired of seeing women treated as the adversary Others all the time.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why Do I Have to Press 1 for English? And Why Doesn't It Work?

Someone I went to high school with posted this on Facebook today, addressed to another fellow alumna:
Just Read (Liked It ) "The Kitchen House": A Novel by Kathleen Grissom
I understand "IF"These Books aren't for you !! I am Just sharing what I enjoy..If I didn't read I would be "CRAZY".. :)))))
(Incidentally, the post is tagged as "Edited", meaning that the writer made some changes [corrections?] to it before I saw it.)

I don't think this person is evil, mind you, or a dolt, or an idiot.  But I still have trouble wrapping my head around the fact that she feels the need to capitalize almost every fucking word, or the rationale for the quotation marks around IF and CRAZY, or why those two words are in all caps.  At the same time, enough people write like this that I don't think it's a random variation; I worked for a time with a manager -- a college graduate -- in the university kitchens who posted signs formatted and punctuated exactly the same way.  It gives me something to think about.  Writing standard English comes so easily to me that it's hard to understand why it's so hard for many other people.

Monday, January 27, 2014

What Happens When You Assume

I've been wasting time poking around the Intertoobz lately when I should be writing here, but occasionally it pays off.  There was a post at The Atlantic the other day about an ancient cuneiform tablet inscribed with a version of the Deluge myth, in which a Mesopotamian god gives instructions for building a boat to save a few humans and representative animals from the coming flood.  The hook for the article was that the boat would be round, a coracle.  "Coracles were used in ancient Iraq as river taxies. They were, given their construction materials, light to transport. Their shape gave them stability against shifting currents and, when necessary, floodwaters."  So, not all that surprising, but still a nice light piece with some intriguing information.

The comments to the post largely focused on the relation between the biblical version of the Deluge myth, starring Noah, and other ancient versions.  Some commenters objected to the story using the story of Noah as clickbait, "which obscures how interesting the discovery is on its own merits. It shouldn't need to be tied to the Bible to make it interesting."  I quibbled mildly: 
I agree with you, but it seems unlikely to me that anyone in the modern West (even atheists like me) could hear about this story without thinking of its similarity to the Noah's ark story. That's not necessarily a bad thing. And there's a lot of lore about the history of religion floating around the atheist communities which is just as received and half-understood as anything you find in evangelical Christian circles. (I'm currently reading Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?, so that's on my mind at the moment.)
This morning I found that someone else had answered me:
DUNCAN!! I've got something for you. go to get into the books ask for "The Case for Christ; a journalists personal investigation for the evidence for Jesus " by Lee Strobel. There's the 'Look Inside' can only look at the cover and the beginning. click on beginning and scroll down to 'FROM DIXON TO JESUS' start reading there. AND, look up "More Than a Carpenter" by Josh McDowell. I mean, really. If you're not going to believe, you ought to know what you're not believing! Nez pah?
I found that this same person had posted several other comments on the same post, writing from a fundamentalist, inerrant-Bible viewpoint that has become familiar to me over to the years from reading and from interaction with people who hold it.  It fits with the books the person recommended to me, and with the assumptions about me they evidently made.

In fact I already have a copy of Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, because other fundamentalists recommended it to me.  I've leafed through it and it appears to be basically the same fundamentalist apologetics that I've encountered before -- in Josh McDowell's More than a Carpenter, for example, which I read about thirty years ago when I was studying up on the subject.  McDowell was, with C. S. Lewis, the go-to guy for a lot of campus evangelicals in those days, best known for a book called Evidence That Demands a Verdict, originally published in the 1970s but reissued and "updated" several times since then.  Every time an evangelical would engage me in conversation to try to win me for Christ and discover that I knew a lot more about the Bible than they did, they'd tell me I should look at McDowell's Evidence, which, they said, answered a lot of the points I raised.  This was one reason I set out to write an anti-apologia in the 1980s, so that unbelievers faced with Christian misisonaries could simply say to them, "Have you heard of Duncan Mitchel's book Like Father, Like Son?  It answers a lot of the points you've raised."

Evidence That Demands a Verdict is not a book so much as a data dump of debater's notes, arranged topically as an outline.  Much of the material is testimonials from numerous people to the excellence and credibility of the Bible, the perfection and authority of Jesus, and the like.  Most of these testimonials are irrelevant, but even more notable, they are mostly from Christian thinkers of the 1800s and earlier.  A great deal has been learned about the Bible and its background in the ancient world that was unavailable to scholars and theologians two or three centuries ago, and even when McDowell includes twentieth-century archaeological and historical material, it's often outdated or misquoted.  But McDowell, like most apologists, relies on his audiences (whether they're Christian or not) being even less knowledgeable than he is.

McDowell is an evangelist and motivational speaker who travels to many college campuses for Campus Crusade for Christ, so I once had a chance to ask him a question when he appeared at IU.  I asked him about one of the factual errors in Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and (obviously flustered) he replied that he'd dealt with that in More Evidence That Demands a Verdict.  So I tracked that down and found that he hadn't dealt with it.  I wrote to him and told him so, and he wrote back saying, not altogether unreasonably, that a man can't remember everything he's written and thanks for writing.  When I checked later editions of Evidence in the late 1990s, the same misinformation was still in it.

More Than a Carpenter, originally published in 1977, really is a book, a relatively short argument for the divinity of Jesus.  As I say, I read it thirty years ago and don't remember any details about it; maybe I should reread it and do a blog post about it, since evidently it's still being recommended.  What I do remember is that it was standard popular fundamentalist Christian apologetic, and since McDowell is not a particularly reliable source anyway, it didn't require a lot of attention from me.  (By "popular" I mean to imply that there are more scholarly apologetics out there, such as the work of the late F. F. Bruce, whose The New Testament Documents -- Are They Reliable? was first published in 1943 but is still in print seventy years later.  It's better than More Than a Carpenter, but it still rests on some of the same untenable arguments used by McDowell.)

I don't know what assumptions my interlocutor at The Atlantic made about the fact that I'm currently reading Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?  She or he couldn't have known that I've read not only More Than a Carpenter but quite a lot of Christian apologetics, plus a shitload of scholarly and popular writing on Christianity from a wide spectrum of theological positions.  I'm reading Did Jesus Exist? not because I expect to learn much from it (and so far, about halfway through, I haven't: the material Ehrman is covering is mostly familiar to me) but to see where the debate on the existence of a historical Jesus stands nowadays.  I've encountered the Jesus-myth position before, mainly in G. A. Wells's The Jesus of the Early Christians (Pemberton, 1971), and found it intriguing but not convincing, nor do I think it's all that important.  Some of the "mythicists," as they call themselves, make some good arguments, but they also make some really flagrant mistakes.  It would be interesting if someone could prove that Jesus was a purely fictional person (as opposed to the legend-embroidered person depicted in the New Testament): it would eliminate the problem of distinguishing fact from fiction in the gospels.  But so far no one has, and given the difficulty of proving a negative no one is likely to; and I find it annoying when some of my fellow atheists declare dogmatically that Jesus demonstrably and certainly didn't exist, with no more basis than fundamentalists have for declaring dogmatically that Jesus demonstrably and certainly was the Christ, the Son of God.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's Sauce for the Goose

There's an interesting article up at The Nation today, about a vice principal at a parochial school in Seattle who was fired in December when he married another man.  Students at the school protested, and the protest spread to other schools whose students "took action by organizing their own protests and banner drops to demonstrate their solidarity."

The Church's justification for firing Mark Zmuda is simple enough: same-sex marriage violates Catholic doctrine, he knew that as an administrator in a Catholic school he must conform to that doctrine, but he violated it, so he's out.  As far as I can tell from the article, Zmuda accepted his termination without protest: it was students who objected, and they are appealing to the judgment of the Church and its personnel, not trying to get the State to intervene on Zmuda's behalf.

The first thing I thought of when I read this article was the suspension of Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson for saying bigoted things in a promotional interview last month.  Robertson was quickly reinstated and the show began a new season, though its ratings in the new season have dropped significantly in the wake of the controversy.

After Robertson was suspended, many liberals pointed out that according to his contract with A&E, he could be fired for saying the sort of things he said, and that was just fine with them.  So I wonder how they will react to the very similar firing of Mark Zmuda, who must have known that he was going against Church doctrine, and his employer has the right to fire him, not just legally but morally -- right?

The writers of the Nation article have no qualms.
Some claim that the Archdiocese of Seattle was within its right to fire Zmuda, pointing out the rights and freedoms guaranteed to religious institutions. But what about the basic rights and freedoms of LGBTQ people to be treated equally with respect and dignity? Religious freedom need not entail the right to practice and promote discrimination.
Oh, really? That's exactly what it entails: churches can practice and promote discrimination in many areas -- they are generally granted an exemption from many provisions of civil rights laws.  (And don't forget that non-religious employers have a great deal of discriminatory power in their treatment of employees.  There's little question that A&E trampled on Phil Robertson's civil rights by suspending him for expressing his no doubt sincerely-held beliefs about homosexuality, especially since they probably knew about them all along.)  Churches can discriminate in who they ordain as clergy, for example: they can limit the honor to members of their denomination, and can require them to hold and express orthodox beliefs; they can discriminate on the basis of sex and probably race, let alone sexual orientation.  They can restrict their clergy's sexual practices and relationships.  So Mark Zmuda's firing is not a surprise.

On the other hand, as usual in cases like this, I wonder if the Church is being selective in its strictness.  Are all the staff of its parochial schools Catholic?  Are they all either chastely single or appropriately married?  None of them, I hope, are divorced (let alone remarried), none are living in sin with heterosexual partners.  I suppose that Mark Zmuda lived with his partner for some time before they got legally married, and I'd be surprised if no one at the school or in the Archbishop's office knew about it.  So hypocrisy, as usual, is probably operative here, but that doesn't change the fact that the Church was within its legal rights to fire Zmuda, though not necessarily in the right ethically.

The Nation article is titled "What the LBGT Movement Can Learn from Seattle High School Students," but it never really tells what the movement can learn.  Contrary to the writers' implications, these kids aren't doing anything new, nothing that the LBGT movement hasn't done many times in the past.  I suppose the answer lies near the end of the piece: "Zmuda’s story is an example of why passing a comprehensive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)—one which does not exempt religious institutions, is of paramount importance to combating discrimination."  I doubt very much that Congress could or would pass an ENDA that didn't include a religious exemption, so this recommendation is rather nutty.  I doubt that GLBT churches like the Metropolitan Community Church would favor a law that didn't grant them the same exemptions that heterosexual churches enjoy.  Change in any church must come from within, not from the state, and I certainly favor and support the protest the Seattle students have mounted.  They're actually a lot like the Civil Rights Movement in its heyday, appealing to the conscience of their opponents rather than trying to get the State to intervene.  While I favor legal changes, I also hold that any movement for social justice must not limit itself to working with the courts and the legislature: it must also work to change people's attitudes by persuasion and example.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Me and the Boys

Among the writers collected in Daughters of Earth is Gwyneth Jones, and the paper following her story made reference to Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction and Reality (Liverpool, 1999), a collection of Jones's critical writings.  Some of the quotations interested me, so I checked the book out from the university library and gobbled it down.  It's a lot of fun, written with little jargon, and has a lot of intriguing insights into writing, reading, and gender.  I just ordered my own copy (autographed, according to the online seller).

I may have more to say about her later, but for now I want to quote what Jones wrote about "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side," the James Tiptree Jr. story included in Daughters of Earth.  In a review of Sarah LeFanu's study of feminist sf, In the Chinks of the World Machine (Women's Press, 1988), Jones wrote:
Alice Sheldon, otherwise known as James Tiptree Jnr [sic], is a key icon in this [Le Fanu’s] study, the woman who fooled the sf establishment with her straightfaced presentation of male stereotypes – and was bitterly entertained, it is clear, when her victims responded with ecstatic little cries of recognition.  But while Alice Sheldon the feminist woman was surviving in her disguise – in the chinks of her male persona – Sheldon/Tiptree the writer achieved, for a while, megastar status in the sf establishment: and this is the paradox of feminist sf.  The successful women writers in sf are few, and feminism is certainly marginal; but the success, the stature and the influence of those few is about of all proportion to their numbers [123-4].
Specifically on "And I Awoke and Found Me Here..." she remarked in a review of another anthology where it appeared:
Almost any story by James Tiptree Jnr [sic] would add something to an anthology called Alien Sex.  The one Ms. Datlow has chosen, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hillside…” is precisely about the alien sex fiend as a human fiction.  The aliens are here, and they aren’t interested.  Frankly, they don’t give a damn.
“And I Awoke…” is a story written by a woman who was pretending – for a whole cocktail of reasons – to be a man.  It foregrounds the plight of the male – cynically, satirically, and maybe just as a marketing ploy [144].
I think Jones would agree with me that the man who holds the stage in the story is an unreliable narrator.  It's comforting to find that I'm not the only person who's noticed that.

One more quotation from Jones, on another subject, reviewing Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash:
It has been said that popular taste cannot handle the idea of there being more than two viewpoints on any subject.  Anything more complicated than bad guys vs. good guys and you lose the mass market.  And then there’s the American liberal, who cannot handle one viewpoint.  Mr Stephenson, who I feel certain would sign himself a liberal, refuses to be labelled and docketed, nobly declines to take sides in any debate whatsoever … [151].
Such lovely snark.  But she's good on a number of things: I enjoyed very much her discussion of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis as children's authors, and also what she has to say about sex/gender and why everyone gets confused about it/them.  I'll probably be referring to her again as I wrote more about that latter topic.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

In the Future Nobody Will Be Queer! -- Except Me

I'm reading Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Wesleyan, 2006), edited by Justine Larbalestier, a collection of sf stories by women that support feminist readings, paired with critical essays on each one.  A nice idea: the essays provide background, though as one would expect they're uneven.  I finished the book last night, and want to single out "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" by Octavia Butler, which I think is not just one of the great science fiction stories, it's one of the great stories period.  (And wow: it's available online, but also in several other collections, including Butler's Bloodchild and Other Stories [Seven Stories Press, 2005].)

But what I want to write about is another story in the collection, James Tiptree Jr.'s "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side", originally published in 1972, and the accompanying paper about it by Wendy Pearson.  (The story is also, conveniently, available online.)  I don't believe I've ever read this story before, though I probably have a copy of it in one of Tiptree's collections.  It's typical of Tiptree's tough-guy mode ... but first I should probably provide some background for those who don't know.  James Tiptree Jr. emerged as a rapidly rising star in science fiction during the late 1960s.  He kept to himself, though he corresponded with fans and other sf writers, and rationed personal information that made fanboys (of various ages) swoon.  As I've written about him before:
It was known that he had worked for the US Army's photointelligence unit in World War II, had later joined the CIA, but returned to school for a doctorate in experimental psychology. Oh, Mary, how butch! It was like James Bond had begun writing science fiction. On the other hand, Tiptree wrote with sensitive attention about women, so some fans speculated that he might be female ... And of course, it soon emerged that Tiptree was a 61-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon.
Sheldon also wrote some stories under different pseudonyms, notably "Raccoona Sheldon."  But it was the Tiptree stories, with their generally macho male narrators, that won the attention and acclaim.  "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side" is one of these.  The viewpoint character in this case is a young Australian reporter whom an older man tries to talk out of his fascination with "aliens," extraterrestrials from other star systems who are visiting or resident on the earth.  The older man warns the reporter, who clearly isn't paying much attention, that many humans -- including the narrator himself -- find aliens erotically fascinating, with outcomes destructive to mind, body, and soul.  He tells of one young woman who'd "been making it with the two Sirians, y'know.  The males do it in pairs.  Said to be the total sexual thing for a woman, if she can stand the damage from those beaks.  I wouldn't know.  She talked to me a couple of times after they finished with her.  No use for men whatever" (165).  A couple of pages later we meet the older man's wife, who seems to be that woman, "limping slightly", "one of her shoulders was grotesquely scarred" (167).

But the older man would know about the erotic fascination of aliens:
The first Yveir I saw, I dropped everything and started walking after it like a starving hound, just breathing ... I spent half a cycle's credit sending the creature the wine they call stars' tears. ... Later I found out it was a male.  That made no difference at all [165].
He wants the reporter to sound the alarm to all Earthlings: "Our soul is leaking out.  We're bleeding to death!"
... What I'm trying to tell you, this is a trap.  We've hit the supernormal stimulus.  Man is exogamous -- all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger.  Or get impregnated by him; it works for women too.  Anything different-colored, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying.  That's a drive, y'know, it's built-in.  Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human.  For millions of years that kept the genes circulating.  But now we've met aliens we can't screw, and we're about to die trying ... Do you think I can touch my wife?  [166].
But, of course, the reporter isn't interested.  He wants him some aliens too.

Pearson does a good job of situating the story in its time and cultural context, and calls on gender, queer, and post-colonial studies approaches to draw out its meanings.  She addresses, for example, the question of "men's" vs. "women's" writing.  Enough writers had passed for the other sex via pseudonyms that you (or I, anyway) would have thought no one would be surprised by Tiptree, but I guess people never learn.  And despite such lessons, many people of both sexes and various sexual politics believe that men and women write differently.  Pearson writes:
It is up to each reader to decide whether such work is a feminist subversion of the more stereotypical elements associated with masculine writing. Is it proof that male and female styles are, at most, cultural constructs that may not even exist?  Does it suggest that a masculine style of writing does actually exist because Tiptree is able, apparently, to internalize and reproduce it so well -- whether subversively mocking it at the same time, or not? [178]
It's not surprising that people try to assign gender to writing styles.  After all, we do the same to just about everything.  I suppose one can speak of masculine and feminine styles of writing, but they are (like any style of writing) cultural constructs; that seems pretty obvious to me.  (It's largely a matter of definition whether styles or any other cultural constructs "exist," for some version of "exist.")  One could ask whether genres exist, or forms -- does the sonnet actually exist because some poets are able, apparently, to internalize and reproduce the form so well?  The tricky part is whether there is a link between sexed body and gendered "style."  I would say there isn't.

And I'd ask whether every writer's style is all that gendered.  Tiptree's style could be called "masculine" because it's extreme, even a caricature.  I'd guess that most writers' styles aren't so distinctive, so readers and critics gender them by the author's name and by subject matter, which obviously relies on stereotypes that don't hold up most of the time.  But most of the time, nothing happens to upset the applecart.  What would happen, I wonder, if it turned out that all the writings of someone like Virginia Woolf -- a stereotypically feminine writer -- had actually been written by a man? 

The application of postcolonial theory to this story is more interesting to me.  Pearson invokes
the specter of the "Third World woman."  The Third World woman, in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's famous formulation, is the subaltern who cannot speak.  She can only be spoken about or for by others.  The figure of the woman silenced by gender, race, and colonization is a specter that also haunts Tiptree's story ... [178-9].
I'm afraid Pearson has this a bit mixed up.  It has been awhile since I read Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?", but I don't recall that she called Third World women the subaltern who cannot speak.  She did insist on a place for women in Subaltern Studies, the study of history from below, dissecting some of Michel Foucault's writing about India and Indian women and exposing some embarrassing blind spots on his part about race and empire.  She also concluded, rather notoriously, that "The subaltern cannot speak," which upset a lot of Third World students writing from the metropole who apparently hadn't read her with any care.  Her point as I understood it was that the subaltern cannot speak by definition: once the subaltern becomes literate, attends university, and starts to publish, he or she is no longer subaltern.  I remember (and must track down) an interview in which Spivak seemed to confirm my understanding, criticizing academics from the Third World who wanted to see themselves as subaltern despite their considerable privilege.  I've run into some such people myself.

Now, one might ask who is "subaltern" in Tiptree's story.  I presume Pearson wants to nominate the older man's wife, who appears at the end of the story looking sullen as well as scarred, and who doesn't say a word.  Fair enough, though not speaking is not the same thing as not being able to speak.  It's possible to imagine a story in which the wife tells her experiences with aliens.  (Tiptree's most famous story, probably, is "The Women Men Don't See," which does let women speak, and of course feminist sf has given voice to many women, writers and their characters.)  But one could just as well nominate the aliens in "And I Awoke and Found Me Here": we hear one human male's side of the story, but not theirs.  Pearson seems not to consider the idea that the older man is what critics call an "unreliable narrator," that what he tells the reporter is not the whole truth.  Pearson seems to take his jeremiad at face value, which is like taking the word of the macho male narrator of "The Women Men Don't See" as gospel.

Pearson also does a good discussion of "sex tourism," but she's not clear on who the sexual tourists are in Tiptree's story.  Ordinarily, in postcolonial discourse, the white male is the sexual tourist who travels to poorer countries to exploit non-white sex workers for his depraved sensual pleasure -- although in fact Japanese men have long been major players in East Asian sex tourism, and I'd bet that Chinese businessmen are giving them a run for their money nowadays.  In "And I Awoke and Found Me Here," the older man sends mixed messages about the aliens, who supposedly are not at all attracted to or interested in copulating with humans, but who often do it anyway, or allow themselves to be paid by adoring, lust-crazed groupies. We don't learn anything about their motives. Is it the aliens who are the sex tourists here, or is it the humans who adore them, visit their planets, and try to capture their interest?  The older man sees the human erotic obsession with aliens as a danger to human survival, not through the aliens' doing but by biological (evolutionary?) accident.  He talks as though all human beings have succumbed to this obsession, but that seems unlikely a priori, just because human beings are not all alike and do not respond equally to the same erotic stimuli -- why would all of us want to be sex toys for the Sirians?  I suspect that like anyone who says "Everybody else is doing it", our informant is overgeneralizing wildly.

Further, there have always been men who blamed their erotic obsessions on women (or on boys): the heartless seductress who leads them on and delights in their abjection and destruction.  If they are attracted to someone, it is because she (or he) is sending out a tractor beam: they themselves have no agency, no will.  The title of Tiptree's story comes from a canonical example of this trope, Keats' ballad "La Belle Dame sans Merci": a knight is seduced by a faery lady and then dumped, after which he mopes on a hillside, "alone and palely loitering".  Given some less-than-impressed remarks about her male colleagues and critiques which Pearson quotes from Alice Sheldon, I doubt the author meant the reader to take the man's complaint totally at face value.

What conclusion Sheldon meant us to draw, however, I don't know.  I was reminded of another of Sheldon's stories, written under the "Raccoona Sheldon" name rather than Tiptree's, "The Screwfly Solution."  In that story, aliens seeking to wipe out humanity, perhaps to clear the planet for colonization by themselves, introduce a mutation that causes men to kill any and all women they encounter.  Is "And I Awoke and Found Me Here" a variation on that story?  Are the aliens responsible for the self-destructive behavior of their groupies?  They don't seem to be.  Another possibility is that Tiptree's story is simply a fable about evolution and the chance factors that can extinguish a species.  If I believe the informant's diagnosis, it's just accident that human desire for the stranger has led them to this cul-de-sac; but as I indicated, it's not plausible, since it's unlikely that all humans would succumb to the alien's charms.  Those humans who, for whatever reason, didn't want to copulate with aliens would continue the species.  It could also be a turnabout story in which the effects of trade and travel, from which Europeans have often benefited at the expense of other cultures, turn back on us.  If so, it's a rather dull one, but that may just be me.  Sheldon would have known better than to see imperialism and colonialism as purely European practices.  I had the impression that "And I Awoke and Found Me Here" is basically a gross-out tale, calculated to inflame masculine paranoia, and I wasn't grossed out.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Word for Word

I'm reading Rebecca Solnit's new book The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), because she's an interesting and thoughtful writer most of the time.  I nearly gave up on her during the 2012 election campaign, when she wrote a repulsively dishonest attack on Obama's critics from the left, which got reposted in several different places, and also rebutted.  It was a shameful performance, and not at all like her usual work; any Obamabot could have written it.  That -- and the fact that she didn't link to it on her own site with other essays she wanted to share -- is why I'm not going to link to it here; if you want to find it, it's easy enough to track down on the Web.  I am not sure I'll ever respect her politically again, but she does other things that I appreciate.  The Faraway Nearby, which I've nearly finished, is one of them.  But it also has some weaknesses, mainly when she talks about religion.

At one point she mentions the famous line from the book of Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
There's a sort of decay or mutation of language at work.  Vanitas is Latin.  It means emptiness and is related to the word vacant.  The Latin Vulgate Bible, the standard version for most of Europe for a thousand years, derives from the Greek Septuagint, where the word that occurs thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes is mataiotes, which means emptiness, meaninglessless, but also transience.  Does transience render all things meaningless?  The Hebrew word in the original of Ecclesiastes, unavailable until modern times, when scraps of surviving manuscript were found in dry caves, is hevel.  It means breath or vapor, and the sense of transience is vivid but the condemnation of the transient is nowhere to be found [90].
One of Solnit's best-known writings, at least on the Web, is "Men Explain Things to Me Facts Didn't Get in Their Way."  It was, I believe, the first thing I ever read by her, and it won me over.  She has a link to it on her website, so I figure she still stands by it.  So it's with trepidation that I am going to explain some things here.

One is that Solnit has evidently confused Ecclesiastes with Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach.  Ecclesiastes is part of the Hebrew canon, known to Christians as the Old Testament; the Hebrew text has always been available.  Ecclesiasticus is not part of the Hebrew canon.  It was written in Hebrew and eventually translated into Greek. The early Christian churches accepted it as part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which they used as their Old Testament, but nowadays you'll only find it in Catholic Bibles or study Bibles that include the Apocrypha. The original Hebrew version was lost until manuscripts were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (Solnit's "dry caves") and elsewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As for the Vulgate, it doesn't derive from the Septuagint.  According to the Wikipedia article, Jerome (the priest and later saint who did most of the work) started by translating the gospels from the original Greek, and eventually translated all of the Old Testament from the Hebrew.  The only parts of the Vulgate that come from the Greek are the New Testament and those parts of the Apocrypha for which the Hebrew originals weren't available.  Solnit evidently thought it was important to discuss the Vulgate, though I'm not sure why; but if so, why didn't she bother to do her homework?

I considered sending Solnit an e-mail about this, but while she has a website, her only contact information is for her agent, since "I can’t reply to all the communications that come my way, and I apologize, because I’m grateful people read my work and think about it and want to talk about it."  Fair enough; I'm not criticizing her for that.  I'm just explaining why I didn't ask her about it first.

As you can guess from the quotation above, Solnit is rather too fond of taking isolated words and telling you their etymology, implying that a word's origins determine its present meaning.  So, near the end of the book, she writes about the word "emergency":
If you look up the origin of the word you will be sent to the word emergence, and emergence leads to emerge: an emergency is a sudden emerging.  The first definition the Oxford English Dictionary gives for emergency is the same as for emergence: "the rising of a submerged body above the surface of water.  Now rare."  ... And then the definition we're used to, "a state of things unexpectedly arising, and urgently demanding immediate action."

An emergency is an accelerated phase of life, a point at which change is begotten, a little like a crisis ... If an emergency is an accelerated emergence, merge is the opposite condition, "to immerse or plunge (a person, esp. oneself) in a specified activity, way of life, environment, etc." or "to immerse or plunge in a liquid" or "to cause to be incorporated, absorbed, or amalgamated" [249-50].
All this isn't without interest, I suppose, but it is largely irrelevant.  As the New Testament scholar Dale B. Martin says, "The etymology of a word is its history, not its meaning" (Sex and the Single Savior [Westminster/John Knox, 2006], 39).  Solnit concedes that the English word "vanity" has a pejorative sense that the Hebrew, Greek and Latin words it translates apparently didn't have -- but "vanity" didn't have that connotation even in English, when King James's men used it in their translation of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Whether "condemnation of the transient is ... to be found" there can't be settled by obsessively focusing on one word, it can only be settled (if at all) by looking at how the word is used in context.  Read the first chapter of Ecclesiastes yourself, and see what you think.  I don't think the transient is exactly condemned, but it isn't seen positively either.  I think the writer is saying that what people (including himself when he was younger) think is important is not important; nothing lasts.  Since the original words indicate not merely transience but emptiness and meaninglessness, transience here is hardly a neutral quality.

I enjoyed The Faraway Nearby, but Solnit's at her best when she's talking more directly and personally about mortality, human connection, and other matters.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Just Say No

Which means I'm turning into myself.  Cool!

It also means that the people I spend the most time with are turning into me.  Even cooler!

Some of the comments under the place on Facebook where a friend of mine found this atrocious meme are sensible -- other people besides me noticed that it would imply that I also have an effect on others, for example.  But those had their downside, for example: "But, if you become like the people you spend time with, who isn't to say, they become more like you. Maybe they can learn to live their lives drama free."  Which expresses a central assumption of this meme and others like it, that "you" never create "drama," only other people do.  In my experience and observation, that's not true.

Just in passing, another friend found a meme captioned with a saying attributed to the mystic Meister Eckhart, "If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough."  I can't find an actual source for it (though Oprah likes it), so I presume it's bogus.  But even if Eckhart said it, I disagree.  It expresses the worst abusive aspects of spirituality, where the Lord chastiseth and the devotee thanks him for the stripes.  At the very mildest, believers need to learn to say "No" to their gods.

Seeing what intelligent people consider spiritual wisdom is generally disheartening to me.  I remind myself that I don't know what they've been through -- heavy addictions, in some cases; chronic illnesses and pain, in others; abuse, in still others; and all of the above for yet others -- and what they find useful to ease their pain, but something still seems so wrong here.  In particular, I wonder how well these rabbit pellets of affirmation actually work.  Are people really happier, healthier, saner, after years of repeating these cliches to themselves?  I'm not persuaded.

Then I consider how lucky I've been, how good life has been to me so far.  But I can't ignore how unlucky many people have been.  Should I thank a deity for sparing me what it has inflicted on others?  Rather, I think I should upbraid it for its cruelty, callousness, sadism.  That, I'd say, would be one better prayer than "Thank you," if one must pray at all.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

We Are in America, Darling, We Have to Make Do

This will be short, because I'm swamped again today, reading half-a-dozen books at the same time.  One of them I've just begun, Peter Hegarty's Gentlemen's Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men (Chicago, 2013), but it looks promising.  I'll probably have more to say about it, but for now I just want to quote a sentence that reflects back on my recent posts on sexual orientation.  Early on, Hegarty refers to one of Kinsey's first public presentations of his research into human sexuality:
His AAAS paper (1941)  showed variability in men’s histories that would bedevil any attempt to divide men into two clear species of “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals” [5]. 
There's nothing new here, but two things to notice.  First, Kinsey resisted and critiqued what is commonly called the “modern” or “Euro-American” homo/hetero binary; Hegarty is, I believe, alluding to Michel Foucault's claim that "the homosexual", unlike "the sodomite," was regarded as a "species."  Kinsey's focus on behavior, as opposed to personality types, supports the notion of sexual "fluidity" to which so many people today pay lip service and then forget. Which makes it all the stranger that he is misunderstood and attacked by academics and others who think they are also engaged in that critique.

Second, within the inversion model (which Kinsey rejected, remember), those two “species” are interdependent – inverts need (or think they need) “normal” men or women as sexual partners, since for two inverts to copulate together is taboo.  "Normal" men don't need inverts, except as they need people who are "bad," polluted, as extramarital sexual partners.  In some ways the invert is preferable to the whore, because the invert reverses the usual practice, and may pay the man to penetrate him.  (Not always, though: one of Martin F. Manalansan's New York-based bakla informants told him gleefully that in America in contrast to the Philippines, the man pays the bakla!  [Global Divas, Duke UP, 2003, 110]).  I hadn't thought of this interdependence before.

Once, a Philosopher -- Twice, a Secondary Virgin

Right after I finished Sunday's post, I realized I'd missed something.  Well, I usually do, and it's always good to have an idea for the next one.

I realized that something else was rubbing me the wrong way about Serena Nanda's remark that the inversion model of homosexuality "in the last three decades has been challenged by a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation."  Similar claims turn up often in academic writing about the history of homosexuality, and I suddenly realized that, apart from the other objections I could raise about it ("gay" is not "postmodern", for example), Nanda mischaracterizes what the "gay ideology" implies.

Nanda is starting from the idea that in non-Euroamerican cultures, homosexuality is construed as the interaction of a 'normally' gendered person and a gender-variant person.  Of course, that construction is also traditional in Euro-(North-)America (though it co-exists with others, as it does elsewhere), and hasn't disappeared yet.  According to this model, the gender-variant person (who may be gender-variant only in the role he or she plays in sexual intercourse) is "the homosexual", the gender-normal conformist person is normal, or "unmarked" as the jargon has has it.  As I pointed out, there is reasons to consider this claim an exaggeration at best.

From one end, there's the story I've quoted before from Mark Padilla's Caribbean Pleasure Industry (Chicago, 2007), about a bugarrón (a male prostitute, in this context) in the Dominican Republic whose girlfriend learned he was being kept by a Dominican maricón (faggot):
But she saw the guy, and – on top of everything the guy was a real maricón -- and I told her, “No! He’s a maricón! I’m not a maricón, I’m a bugarrón!” … And she said “What do you mean you’re not a maricón, if you live with a man?!” And I said they weren’t the same thing. “What do you mean?” And I said, “No, because he’s the one who receives, and I’m the one who gives” [131].
It seems to me that this story, along with the rest of Padilla's ethnography, is evidence that the Dominican male who "gives" is not unmarked, or he'd be simply an hombre instead of a bugarrón.  Padilla claims that "the majority of the sex workers with whom I spoke did not seem to feel that being a bugarrón or sanky panky expressed a basic aspect of their identity or personhood" (92); as this story suggests, I'd bet that the situation determines how basic being a bugarrón was to his informants.  The same is true of the other cultures I've written about here: in rural South Africa, Graeme Reid wrote that "in ‘location language’, the phrase ‘somehow bended’ refers to ‘straight’ men known or suspected of being available as sexual partners to gays. Those who are ‘somehow bended’ are also referred to as gents" (How to Be a Real Gay [University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2013, 60].  In Mexico City, the men who penetrate homosexuales are mayates.  In traditional US queer culture, the penetrators of fags, fairies, and queers were trade or jam, and so on.

In many if not all of these cases, the boundaries are not as solid as they're supposed to be, and the inverts are ambivalent about it.  As Annick Prieur wrote in Mema's House, Mexico City (Chicago, 1998, 166), "bisexual men who are apparently manly but who secretly let themselves be penetrated as if they were homosexuales are often criticized by the vestidas, even when the vestidas are the ones who penetrate them."  Barry Reay, in New York Hustlers (Manchester, 2010) tells of "Eddie, who was being pedicated [that is, fucked anally] by both Painter and Melcarth and had begun to worry about enjoying it – ‘Eddie … fucks girls avidly’ – was easily convinced that it merely enlarged his sphere of enjoyment and did not make him ‘queer’" (124).  And Mark Padilla reported that "The men in this study often mentioned to me that one or another of their peers was known to 'dar el culo' (give their ass) on occasion, which often produced much hilarity on the part of the storyteller" (96).  Though Padilla didn't draw the connection, he also learned that the same men who insisted at first that only other bugarrónes stole from their clients, would eventually admit that they themselves did so; I suspect the same pattern applied at least sometimes to giving ass.

At the same time, Padilla reports that the owner of a local (Dominican) gay bar catering to local gay-identified men told Padilla's research associate:
“I hope you’re going to prove what we already know: they’re all closet cases [son unos tapa’os].”  This implies the existence of a deeper, more authentic sexual identity that is being actively repressed by the bugarrón, who fails to recognize his own fundamental sexuality and public mark himself in terms of his presumed same-sex erotic preference.  Such discourses of authenticity are prominent features of North American constructions of gay identity [33]...
But "discourses of authenticity" are prominent features in Latin American constructions of masculine identity, as Padilla knows: they involve authentic men (hombre-hombre, muy hombre, mucho hombre, etc.)  and women (good women -- mothers, virtuous wives, virgins), and gender variants are not considered authentic.  Penetrated males are inauthentic in this discourse by definition.  It is interesting, though, that the same gay men who prize muy hombre males like the bugarrón nevertheless want to believe that deep down, they aren't really muy hombre after all.  I'm not sure what this means -- it sounds like the misogynist belief that every woman, no matter how good she seems, is really at heart a puta -- but Padilla was too busy fussing about the pollution of authentic Dominican sexual culture by inauthentic North American constructions to notice it, let alone question it. (I see I haven't really addressed the elephant in the room, namely stigma.  The penetrated male, like the polluted female, is a stigmatized figure, so rejection of a gender variant identity tends to involve the rejection of stigma -- "I'm not like that" -- rather than a scrupulous concern with accuracy.  Maybe I'm overstressing that aspect, but most scholars ignore it altogether.)

So it appears that often (not always -- almost nothing is "always" in human societies), the supposedly sharp boundary between penetrator and penetrated turns out to be more permeable than it's supposed to be.  That's hardly surprising; as Prieur argues, "when two persons with the same male sexual organs are naked, the construction of one of the partners as a not-homosexual man and of the other one as a not-male person is difficult to upkeep" (274).  And: "If it were the whole truth that a man enhanced his masculinity by penetrating other men, they would brag about their exploits with jotos, and one could imagine that the less effeminate the joto were, the more masculinity would the mayate gain from penetrating him, from showing himself as 'more man' than the other.  One objection might be that it would create doubt about who penetrated whom.  But if we take the group rapes in prison as an example, where other men witness who penetrates whom so there should be no doubt about who gained masculinity, it is still striking that systematically the most effeminate, those who are already jotos, are picked out to be raped. It is their femininity that 'justifies' the abuse [263-4]."

The point I'm arguing is that even where this 'traditional' gendered model of homosexuality predominates, it takes a fair amount of cultural work to maintain the boundaries.  It isn't only a supposedly postmodern "gay ideology" that wonders about the normality of the gender-normal partners of gender variants: so do people who live in those pre-modern societies.

This should establish the background I'm working from.  So what about this "gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation"?  I think Nanda -- like everybody else, really -- is confused about what "sexual orientation" means, and you really have to sort that out before you can talk about this.  According to the American Psychological Association,
Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. It is easily distinguished from other components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and the social gender role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior).
On one hand, going by this definition, it doesn't matter whether you're a top or a bottom, a butch or a femme: if you have an enduring emotional, etc. attraction toward persons of your own sex, your sexual orientation is homosexual or perhaps bisexual.  Whether you are "a homosexual" is another question; this definition doesn't answer it.  The APA's definition founders a bit on "enduring" -- how "enduring" must it be?  Must it be exclusive to one sex, or can it extend to both sexes?  It doesn't follow from this that "both partners in a homosexual relationship" are homosexual by orientation, however: they might both be bisexual, they might even both be heterosexual -- though the latter seems unlikely if the "relationship" lasts for long.  How many "homosexual relationships" can you have before you qualify as "a homosexual"?  If by "homosexual relationship" Nanda means a relationship between two people of the same sex, the term implies nothing about their respective sexual orientations; if she means "a relationship between two homosexuals," where "homosexuals" means two people of homosexual orientation, then it does imply something about their orientations -- but it's also tautological.  "Homosexual relationship" refers to the sex(es) of the people involved, not to their identities, subjectivities, or sexual orientations; the same goes for "heterosexual relationship."  But Nanda, like most writers on this subject, seems not to have thought her definition through.

I've pointed out before that the prevailing scientific model of homosexuality is that of inversion, not sexual orientation: researchers investigating the causes of sexual orientation assume that a homosexual male is biologically feminized, and a homosexual female is biologically masculinized.  Since these researchers are evidently unaware they're making this assumption, they never justify it.  They begin by assuming that "a homosexual" is a gender variant, and look for evidence to support that assumption.  They don't explain who a homosexual's partner would be, probably because they haven't thought that far.  As Nanda acknowledges, and cross-cultural evidence shows, inverts (gender variants) commonly reject the idea of copulating with each other, and they reject it very strenuously, as "lesbianism," "incest," "cannibalism," and the like. There are mileux in which gender variants copulate and form relationships with each other, and contemporary American GLB culture is one of them, some of the time, though there's still widespread fetishizing here of "straight-acting" and even "straight" men as ideal partners -- but if they're really straight (that is, they have a heterosexual orientation by the APA's definition), why would they be having sex with other males?  If they are always the penetrator when copulating with other males, then they may not be gender variants, but they don't have an exclusively heterosexual orientation either.

There's also a long tradition of homogender or monogender homosexuality which rejects inversion (effeminacy for men, mannishness for women), though it often involves differences of age or class instead, and it doesn't fit the assumptions of the current research on homosexuality. The monogender model of homosexuality coexists (uneasily) with the inversion model, yet most gay men I've known who reject effeminacy still embrace scientific claims about the innateness of homosexuality that are based on the inversion model.  What matters to them, it appears, is being able to assert with scientific support that they are Born That Way, no matter how incoherent and invalid the science is.

It appears to me that this common formulation of the bad "gay ideology" is largely a straw man -- not because contemporary American GLBT culture has a coherent self-understanding, but because the academics studying it are just as confused as their subjects are.  I'm not sure I've quite gotten at what is wrong with Nanda's assertion about "(postmodern) gay ideology" and its implications about the orientations of partners in homosexual relationships; but I hope I've exposed some of the confusion in it.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Infantile Fantasies of Omnipotence

I know, I know -- I'm saying that like it's a bad thing.  Anyway, some brief items as I sit at home today, confined by the cold weather.

"Love it," wrote a friend as she linked to this online comic about a young kid's introduction to role-playing games.  She's bi, educated, happily coupled with a woman, culturally sensitive, a Unitarian.  The kid in the comic learns that he can, within the game's world, decapitate an enemy with a broadsword and toss the head derisively aside.  "I can do that?"  Yes he can.  "A childish action, steeming [sic] from a morbid, juvenile fury," the narrator says (though such fantasies remain a staple of gaming, including computer gaming, for adults -- it's one thing if you outgrow it, but many people never do).  The boy discovers that he can play "without board, without figurines ... then even without a character sheet or dice."  "They can call you childish, huge nerds, say that you're trying to escape reality, but your brains are a tangible component of this reality ... and within their fathomless synapses ... everything is possible" (ellipses in the original).  But "this reality" isn't reality, and even in gaming, everything isn't possible -- each world has its constraints and limits; that's intrinsic to gaming and world creation.

I suspect that these panels were intended as the beginning of a longer story.  But standing alone as they do here, they're tremendously creepy.  (Especially when they're recommended by a person who's scornful of the detachment from reality of fundamentalist Christians and conservative Republicans.  Let her who is without sin ...)  Partly my alienation is probably generational, though I grew up on superhero comics and I know the appeal of infantile fantasies of omnipotence.  Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur gave me useful insights into what they mean and why they must be outgrown.  If you want to indulge in them -- and it's valid to do so as recreation -- you must have a critical distance from them at the same time.  I don't see that critical distance here.

Democracy Now reported today that Senator Bernie Sanders is inquiring whether the National Security Agency is spying on members of Congress.  The NSA replied reassuringly that "members of Congress have "the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.'"  Which means none at all, so that's all right then.  Just asking!

Emptywheel has a useful post today on corporate media / corporate government attacks on Edward Snowden, particularly the allegation that he violated his sacred vow to be obedient and keep government secrets.  (Similar attacks were made on Chelsea Bradley Manning, you may recall.)  First, as emptywheel points out, the documents Snowden signed as a government contractor do not contain any such provisions.  Snowden recently argued (via), quite reasonably, that by revealing those secrets he was defending the Constitution.  There has been talk about an offer of "some kind of amnesty" to Snowden, but emptywheel sensibly dismisses it "as I think he could never accept the terms being offered, it arises in part out of NSA’s PR effort, and distracts from the ongoing revelations." Real amnesty or clemency would be acceptable, but who in his right mind would trust the Obama administration and the national security to offer the real thing?

But it popped into my mind as I read the post that there's an echo in the attacks on Snowden of the attacks on Phil Robertson, who was suspended by A&E because his offensive remarks about homosexuality and African-Americans and teen brides violated his sacred contract with his employer.  Those arguments came from liberals, at least some of whom approve of Edward Snowden's actions, but many of whom don't.  As I've argued, the control that corporate entities and other private-sector employers want to (and largely do) exercise over their employees is just as disturbing a threat to liberty as repressive actions by the government.  Vague and open-ended promises of compliance in order to get a job are about as morally (as opposed to legally) binding, it seems to me, as the open-ended giving of consent in the marriage contract, which was used for many years to justify forced sex in marriage.  (A wife had already given her consent to her husband as part of her sacred wedding vows, so she couldn't shirk her marital duty until death did them part.  It seems that many institutions like to extract open-ended commitments from weaker parties in contracts.)

Which reminds me, last night another liberal friend posted a link to a post -- from the corporate business rag Forbes, yet! -- about the blowback to some corporate CEOs after they announced they were going to cut back on workers' hours so they wouldn't be eligible for medical insurance.  The post mainly discusses "brand identity" but also mentions that some chains have seen declining business and therefore profits as a result of their contempt for their employees.  Papa John CEO John Schnatter, says the writer, "was forced to publish an op-ed piece where he sought to convince us that he never really intended to cut back worker hours but had simply been speculating on what he might do in response to the legislation."  This isn't exactly news, but I'm pleased to hear that the public's memory is ill-disciplined enough that these businesses are still feeling the pain a year later.

But it occurred to me: if Phil Robertson could be suspended, however temporarily, for bigoted remarks that only potentially affected A&E's ratings and bottom line, shouldn't Schnatter and other CEOs whose political agenda has demonstrably embarrassed their companies and hurt stock prices and profits be disciplined too?  Surely their employments contracts have clauses about such things. It would never happen, of course: CEOs get their salaries and stock options and bonuses even when they run their companies into the ground.

Finally, speaking of bigoted remarks, at the end of Alternative Radio today our community radio station played a song by Santee Sioux singer/songwriter John Trudell, "Bombs Over Baghdad."  I don't know if it was part of the program or a space-filler before Democracy Now, but a few lines caught my attention.  I've bolded the ear-perking bits:
Bombs over Baghdad, Bombs over Baghdad
Bombs over Baghdad, Dancers of Death
Murder in the air, with the next breath
Macho Queens selling war-makers toys
Raining Destruction, Good Old Boys
Death bringer In Queen George's Eyes

Read his lips, war-maker lies
Ah, once again a progressive shows his righteousness by calling his enemies queer.  How very Sixties.  It's good that Trudell is so harshly critical of the invasion of Iraq -- not all Native American singers have been -- but what is this fag-baiting about?  Understand, I'm not calling in the drones, nor am I saying that Trudell is a monster beyond redemption; I'm not calling for a boycott of his music; I'm saying that he's a homophobe and should called to account for it.  This isn't a white vs. Indian issue: some two-spirit folks should have a talk with him.

(That's the St. Joseph Lighthouse on Lake Michigan, encrusted in ice and snow.  Someone posted the picture to Facebook; I don't know if he was the original source. [P.S. Turns out the photographer is named Thomas Zakowski.)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Girls Will Be Boys and Boys Will Be Girls

I just read a short (106 pages of text) book, Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations (Waveland Press, 2000) by Serena Nanda.  Nanda, a cultural anthropologist, is the author of an ethnographic study of the hijras of India, though lately, as a professor emerita, she's been working on a series of "anthropological murder mysteries."  Gender Diversity is meant as a brief introduction to its subject, and it's good that its crosscultural scope (while limited) includes Europe and America.  But there are problems, which are all the more visible in such a short book.  That's a good thing, but it doesn't make the problems go away.

There are some errors that are clearly Nanda's fault, like her reference to "the Genesis story, in which Adam creates Eve from his own loins" (87).  Of course in the second Genesis creation myth, it is Yahweh who creates Eve, from Adam's rib.  Less egregious but still significant is the claim that in Plato’s Symposium "Aristophanes argues that three sexes were part of an original human nature, “man, woman, and the union of the two …. having a double nature” before all three groups were split in half by Zeus (Symposium 252-3); as a consequence, human beings spend their lives seeking their lost other half.  Aristophanes doesn't "argue", he simply declares that he's talking about the original human condition.  Moreover, the primordial humans with the "double nature" were the source of what we now would call heterosexuals: "Now all who are the men's slice from the common genus, which was then called androgynous, are lovers of women; and many adulterers have been of this genus; and, in turn, all who are women of this genus prove to be lovers of men and adulteresses."  Those males who became lovers of other males, and those females who became lovers of other females, were originally single-natured, so to speak.  Classical Greece also had stereotypes of effeminate, sexually receptive males, which we know about from hearsay.  The institution of pederasty, in which adult male erastoi courted and loved adolescent male eromenoi, distanced itself from effeminacy in either partner.  So Aristophanes' myth has little if anything to do with the kind of gender variation Nanda is writing about.

Most of Nanda's exemplars of gender variation are our contemporaries, who can be studied and interviewed directly.  In the case of American Indians (as with some African variations, but Nanda doesn't cover Africa in Gender Diversity), this is less true, though that's changing.  So, like others writing about this subject, Nanda must rely on older travelers' and ethnographic accounts, which often leads to trouble.  Her description of gender variants -- alyha (males) and hwame (females) -- among the Mojave, for example, is "based on interviews by anthropologist George Devereux (1937) with some old informants who remembered the transvestite ceremony and had heard stories about gender variant individuals from their elders" (21).  Devereux, then, was writing about a phenomenon he'd never encountered personally, often at third-hand ("stories [they had heard] about gender variant individuals from their elders").  So I'm a bit skeptical about the rather detailed description of alyha sexual behavior Nanda provides, especially since she also apparently accepts John H. Honigmann's account of "female berdaches" among the Kaska of the Yukon -- also based on interviews with gender-normative male Kaska informants who hadn't met such individuals themselves but had heard stories about them from their elders.  Honigmann's work was dissected by Jean-Guy A. Goulet in his contribution to Two-Spirit People (ed. Jacobs, Thomas, and Lang [Illinois, 1997]).  Nanda knows and cites that collection, but evidently didn't read Goulet's piece, since she claims that "Among the Kaska, a family who had only daughters might select one to 'be like a man'; by engaging in the male activity of hunting, she would help provide the family with food" (24).  That's exactly what Goulet cast doubt on.  (Such selection isn't unknown in the West, if only as folklore; see, for example, Isabel Miller's novel Patience and Sarah, one of whose protagonists was raised "as a boy" in a large family with no sons.)

Luckily, we can talk to real gender variants around the world today, and observe how their families and neighbors treat them.  Nanda herself talked at length to hijra, for example, as did Gayatri Reddy in With Respect to Sex (Chicago, 2005).  We also have numerous works by gay Indian writers, based in India itself or in the diaspora.  One hijra, A. Revathi, has written his own autobiography in English, The Truth About Me (Penguin Global, 2011).  Martin F. Manalansan IV, an anthropologist who identifies himself as a bakla, has written about the experience of Filipino gender variants in the US; J. Neil Garcia, another bakla academic, has written about bakla and gay life in the Philippines.

Because Gender Diversity is such a short book, its contradictions are thrown into relief, which is handy.  Nanda makes the typical errors on gender variation in the West, saying now that the Western model of homosexuality is homogender, and then that it is based on inversion.  So, for example, she writes that Brazil assimilated a "modern Euro-American 'medical' model of sex/gender relations ... in the late late-nineteeth and early-twentieth centuries."  But this model
…in the last three decades has been challenged by a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation.  This model, which continues the homosexual /heterosexual divide of the medical model, but without its pejorative connotions [sic], is gaining a foothold in the more highly industrialized urban centers of the South (Rio and Sao Paulo), as well as among the more wealthy and educated classes throughout Brazil [55-6].
To her credit, she recognizes that "In Brazil, as increasingly in many contemporary cultures, several sex/gender ideologies coexist" (55), but this has always been true in contemporary cultures and in the past as well.  (Compare classical Greece, with its homogender but age-stratified institution of pederasty which coexisted with a model of penetrable effeminate males.)  As for the "postmodern" (?) ideology, "in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation," this is a gross oversimplification.  The "ideology" that only the penetrated male was "homosexual" was current, and perhaps dominant, in the United States until the middle of the twentieth century, and the denigration of effeminacy has meant that many males in a variety of cultures have used flaming queens as cover for their own activities.  In Mexico (as in much of Latin America), for example, the queen with plucked eyebrows, makeup, and a wardrobe of gowns is the official metonym of male homosexuality, and anthropologists have often mistaken the part for the whole. (Vestidas are so much easier to find and study.)  But gay male anthropologists and travelers have found plenty of sexual partners in such places without having to put on a dress or wig, and there's so much homogender activity going on that perhaps we should be more skeptical whether the activo/pasivo model is actually gendered.  (The same goes for contemporary South Africa, where the white anthropologist Graeme Reid was propositioned by black men who wanted to penetrate him, even though he didn't fit the codes of the lady that supposedly governed male/male sex there.)  For that matter, a naive observer might conclude from popular entertainment that a gendered ideology of homosexuality was dominant in the US, and many people do.  Maybe it is.

I enjoyed this remark by Nanda about Thailand, especially after some people I know on Facebook were getting their pants in a bunch about American evangelicals who blame earthquakes on Teh Gay:
Same-sex/gender eroticism (what would be called homosexuality in the modern West) was considered inauspicious, resulting in natural disasters, such as droughts, being struck dead by lightning, or becoming crazy.  These consequences do not appear to have been directed at (heterogender) man/kathoey relationships … [74]
(Kathoey [กะเทย] are the feminine transgenderish males in Thai society.)  And, of course, she mentions numerous times that "gender variants" almost never, in any culture, copulate with other "gender variants" -- that would be "lesbianism," "incest," even "cannibalism."  For example:
And, similar to India, Brazil, Thailand and the Philippines, but in contrast to the West, gender nonconformists [in the Pacific Islands] do not have sex with each other [74].  
However, it is not true that gender nonconformists in "the West" normally have sex with each other, as Nanda here implies.  For one thing, Latin America is part of "the West"; more important, the idea of two sissies "bumping pussies" (as queens I've known delicately put it) is as outrageous in some contemporary American circles as it is in Rio, Mexico City, Bangkok, Hyderabad, or Manila.  Try this for size, from John C. Howard's Men Like That (Chicago, 1999): "A drop of sissy come would choke us. If we were going to go down on anybody, they would have to be men, trade" (122).  I heard this sentiment expressed in the gay communities of southern Indiana in the early 1970s.

I'm also skeptical about the claim, which is not particular to Nanda, that "The sexual partners of gender variants were never considered gender variants themselves" (17).  As she says a few pages later, Mohave gender variants' "husbands were teased for marrying them" (21).  Numerous scholars have doubted similar claims about males who penetrate other males in Latin American societies: Annick Prieur is one observer among others who's found it difficult to get mayates (gender-normative Mexican men who penetrate Mexican sissies) to admit, let alone talk about their same-sex copulations; see Mema's House, Mexico City (Chicago, 1998).  Stephen O. Murray has written, more stringently, that
Whether the complementary role is a "gay macho" (bujarron) indifferent to what he penetrates is a matter of some controversy among observers -- and also one of dissensus among natives ... Usually, the category is linguistically unmarked (hombre-man) although Schifter and Madrigal reported hombres de verdad (true men), Lancaster attested the reduplicated (hence, highly marked) hombre-hombre, and Tierno listed muy hombre and mucho hombre (very man and much man).  The masculine partner, then, at least sometimes is referred to with linguistically marked forms and is, thereby, distinguished from men in general [50].
And, he adds:
Latinos with whom I have discussed claims that masculinity can be enhanced by fucking a maricon vociferously disagree with Lancaster's assertion that fucking men enhances "male honor."  They also question the extent of banter about homosexual exploits among adults in Latino cultures ... Lancaster does not appear to have asked direct questions of the residents of the working class barrio in Managua, Nicaragua, among whom he lived[,] about whether one gains honor from using a pasivo (cochon in the local lexicon) [54] ...
Murray also notes that Lancaster might have produced a more accurate picture of Nicaraguan society if he had "studied those who call themselves cochones rather than picking up tidbits of hombre-hombres' views of cochones" (56n8).  These considerations may not refute Nanda's remarks, but they do complicate them and the consensus she represents.  Although she cites several authors from the collection in which Murray's critique appears (Stephen O. Murray, Latin American Male Homosexualities (New Mexico, 1995), she evidently skipped his contributions, just as she missed Goulet's in Two-Spirit People.

It's ironic that Nanda, like so many of her colleagues, opposes "third sex" and "third gender" concepts to "modern" (or are they "postmodern"?) "Euro-American" ideologies.  The thing is, "third sex" and "third gender" are both Western concepts, developed in the nineteenth century* by European doctors and disseminated (along with Euro-American homophobia) to doctors and lawyers around the world.  Whether, or how well, these concepts actually correspond to non-Western figures like bakla, hijra, katoey can be and should be discussed more, but like "queer," which is also applied indiscriminately, regardless of culture or era, they are Western in origin and content.

While Gender Diversity is a good introduction to its subject for undergraduates, it also shows some gaping holes in the Euro-American academic account of sex and gender, whether of the "West" or elsewhere.  That could be a good thing, if it leads to a reconsideration of the consensus.

*In fact the idea of a "third sex" has been traced back to the second-century North African Christian father Tertullian, who wrote in his treatise To the Nations:
You ['O unjust pagans'] too have in your midst a third gender -- not so much a third religious persuasion -- but a third sex. They are well suited for both male pleasure and for female pleasure, endowed with male and female aptitudes. Do we offend you with this particular shared affinity?  Equality lends force to envy.  Thus the potter envies the potter and the craftsman envies the craftsman.
I learned this from Willy [Henri Gauthier-Villars, 1859-1931], The Third Sex [ET of Le Troisième Sèxe, 1927]  Translated and with an introduction and notes by Lawrence R. Schehr.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007, page 99n4.  The things a promiscuous reader finds ...

Friday, January 3, 2014

Every Man for Himself

Alan Sinfield is pretty prolific: I need to pay more attention to what he publishes.  I hadn't heard of Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Yale, 1999) until I stumbled on a copy in a used bookstore, and I grabbed it.  It's an interesting survey, mostly of English-language GLB theatre, though it often felt a bit rushed, even at 350 pages of text; I'd have been pleased to see him say more on many of the plays he discusses.  I wouldn't be surprised if he had to trim it down for publication.  In any case, it's worth reading if you're interested in the subject, though I imagine most people who are would already have read it.

At one point in his discussion of drama dealing with AIDS, Sinfield contrasts American work with British, noting that mainstream theater in the UK produced much less original work on the subject, because of the different trajectory of the epidemic there.  (Most of the well-known US plays were staged in London, though.)  But there's another difference he finds:
The fact is, although the characters in the [American] plays discussed here are outlaws in that they are gay, in other respects almost all of them are notably privileged -- white, male, affluent, professional, metropolitan ... These men have no tradition of political dissidence.  They had not expected to need the State, and when they do they cannot quite believe that it is not on their side.  In Love! Valour! Compassion! the men hear a gay demonstration being broken up -- 'They've always hated us.  It never ends, the fucking hatred' (107).  But it is at a safe distance, in Seattle, on the television.  When Mickey in The Normal Heart gives voice to suspicions which challenge US democratic ideology -- suggesting that the virus may have originated as a military experiment -- he is quickly declared to be having a mental breakdown and hustled out of the action (67-68).  In 1995, in an interview with Lisa Power, Kramer says that lately he has been 'accepting and facing ... that all these myths I have swallowed about humanity and American and "one voice can make a difference" -- these things that we're all taught, that democracy works and all -- turn out to be bullshit when you're gay or you have AIDS or are a member of a minority or whatever the reason'.  'That was a surprise?' Power asks [323].
Notice that Kramer gave that interview after years of experience in AIDS activism, mostly with ACT-UP, which he founded.  But then, even though he lived through the Civil Rights Movement and the movement against the US invasion of Vietnam, he'd never had much interest in politics.  According to the Wikipedia page on Kramer:
Initially, while living on Fire Island in the 1970s, Kramer had no intention of getting involved in political activism. There were politically active groups in New York City, but Kramer notes the culture on Fire Island was so different that they would often make fun of political activists: "It was not chic. It was not something you could brag about with your friends... Guys marching down Fifth Avenue was a whole other world. The whole gestalt of Fire Island was about beauty and looks and golden men."
But then AIDS invaded Paradise, and like so many other privileged gay men, Kramer found that money and chic offered no protection against the plague.  Yet even fourteen years after reality came crashing down on his head, Kramer was evidently still struggling with it, and apparently only as it affected him and people like him.  I guess this isn't surprising: of course men (mostly they are men, of course) who thought they were part of the State, or at least part of the classes that run our society, were indignant when their sense of entitlement hit a brick wall because they were queer.  Of course they have no experience with political dissidence; dissidents are the Other, the losers raging ignorantly and impotently outside the Inner Circle of the Cool People.

"Despite its political pitch," Sinfield adds, "The Normal Heart tends always to pose issues as interpersonal dilemmas" (323-4).  On one hand, that's to be expected in drama, which uses people and their interaction to make its points.  On the other hand, it's especially typical of art and entertainment in the US.  One of the reasons Korean cinema was a revelation to me was its ability to situate characters in their society, with much more realistic political awareness than I've ever seen in US product.  Even a melodramatic TV series like Sandglass (1995) was anchored in Korean history in a way that I can't imagine any TV show in the US bothering with.  And right now the top-grossing film in South Korea is The Attorney, about human rights lawyers who defended victims of torture during the dictatorship that ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1987.  (I knew I should have gone to Korea for the holidays; I could probably have seen it, since big films are shown in select theatres with English subtitles during their first run.  But it'll be out on DVD soon enough.)

I've noticed before that Americans are prone to see political conflict as "interpersonal dilemmas."  Kramer, again, fits the pattern well: in the 1980s he largely blamed New York City Mayor Ed Koch and President Reagan for the epidemic, with a personal venom that overlooked structural and systemic factors.  I now understand that this wasn't just political strategy: he genuinely thought they were personally responsible, just like in the movies.  So it's funny when the Obama devotee and journalist (and former ACT-UP activist!) Garance Franke-Ruta laments the "fanfictionalization" of US politics; it has ever been thus.  (Ma! Ma!  Where's my pa?  In the White House, ha ha ha!)   Franke-Ruta admits this, but she can't see that she's part of the problem.  US politics has always been a sports bout, with the respective fans cheering on their team and its star.  The American fantasy of individualism, with its rejection of human interdependence, fits this tendency perfectly, enshrined in entertainment, political philosophy, and the social sciences.