Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Key to the Prison House of Gender

Richard Seymour wrote recently:
From a certain perspective, notably that of radical feminism, all gender socialisation is child abuse.
When he quoted that line on Twitter, I remarked:
In the same way, though, child gender self-identification is self-abuse.
To which he replied:
you're accusing children of abusing themselves.
I answered:
No, I was playing on an antique term that I thought was no longer in serious use. ("Accusing"!)
That, thankfully, was the end of that exchange.

Maybe I was slightly disingenuous, however.  I can't see any reason not to say that children may (and do) do things that hurt themselves and others, as adults do.  It's not an accusation (a term that in this context still perplexes me), and "abuse" is a problematic word: like much of the terminology of regimes of control, it's ambiguous and so is often used carelessly, as in "drug abuse" and "self-abuse" itself.  So let's toss it aside and try to focus on what is really at stake here.

The sentence I quoted from Seymour was the overture to a discussion of, or around, a recent court case in Britain, in which "a judge took a child out of the care of its mother because it was deemed that the child was being forced to 'live as a girl' while in fact identifying as a boy."
We have the text of the judgment to go on, and we have the reactions of trans activists, who have expressed concern about the value judgments implied in the judgment and the absence of gender specialists consulted in court. There is a petition seeking to reverse the decision. 
And that's about it; privacy concerns, I presume, have limited the amount of information accessible to the public.  Seymour therefore decided simply to "ask: what if everything the judgment says is true? I doubt that it is that straightforward, but supposing it is: what conclusions should we draw? For the sake of argument, then, I will assume the factual accuracy of everything that is claimed by the judge."

The ensuing discussion is murky and confused, which is unusual for Seymour.  He's usually exemplary in the clarity and directness of his writing but gender, like religion, is one of his weak areas.  He begins:
In particular, I will assume that the child identified as a boy, and did not consent to live as a girl. Or, more precisely, that the child would have preferred to identify as a boy, and only consented to live as a girl in order to please his mother.
"Identified as" is intensely problematic.  "Identify" is not an analytic term, despite its popularity as a political one.  If the child considered himself a boy, then he continued to "identify as" one despite his mother's pressure.  "Identify" and "live as" are not the same thing at all.  I "identify as" male and as a man, for example, but what does it mean to say that one "lives as" a man?  A child (or an adult) might very well "identify as" one sex while neglecting or refusing to fit the stereotypes (i.e., "gender") associated with it.  I myself violate numerous expectations of masculinity, some of which require more steadfastness than others.

The confusion that runs through the post, though, is the equation of gender socialization and abuse.  Seymour evidently assumes that "socialization" is explicit and overt and probably punitive, though most of the time it's implicit and covert and enforced by approval and reward.  The mother who praised her young son for announcing that he wanted to be Queen of New York was socializing him into her own assumptions about gender.  (I still wonder if she'd have been as delighted if he wanted to be Butch, King of the Cowboys.)  But parents socialize their children by speaking to them in their native language; by living in a given locale with its language and customs, by feeding them some foods and not others, by singing them songs and telling them stories, by providing examples of what people are and how they live.  Parents also socialize their children by teaching them to resist norms and stereotypes: if you teach your sons to cook and clean, and your daughter carpentry and small-engine repair, that is also socialization, and I don't think Seymour would consider it abuse.

It's impossible to raise children without socializing them.  Children can't survive without intensive interaction with other human beings, socializing themselves and being socialized by them; so socializing them cannot be categorized as abuse if "abuse" has any meaning at all.  If it really was the radical feminist position that all gender socialization is abuse, that's a critical flaw in radical feminism. I presume that Seymour is aware of this, and that he was using "socialization" in a narrow sense, such as punishing a child for failing or refusing to conform to some norm.  By "abuse" he presumably meant something like mistreatment and cruelty; mistreatment and cruelty are unacceptable whether they're meted out to children or adults, and regardless of what sort of norms (or none at all) they are used to enforce.

I suppose that some radical Second Wave feminists did imagine that it would be possible to raise children without socializing them into gender norms.  In 1972 the novelist Lois Gould published a fable, X: A Fabulous Child's Story, about a child who was raised without gender socialization as a part of a $23 billion scientific experiment guided and evaluated by "Xperts."  Because it was ostensibly written for children, it's written in an obnoxious cutesy style (another kind of socialization: because you are a child, I will talk down to you).  The child X has to wear red-and-white checked overalls, and after X overcomes the other children's false consciousness, they all want to wear them too.  And after X is evaluated by Xperts who conclude that X is just about the least mixed-up X evar, the neighborhood parents still aren't satisfied:
"But what is X?" shrieked Peggy and Joe's parents. "We still want to know what it is!" "Ah, yes," said the Xperts, winking again. "Well, don't worry. You'll all know one of these days. And you won't need us to tell you."

"What? What do they mean?" Jim's parents grumbled suspiciously. Susie and Peggy and Joe all answered at once. "They mean that by the time it matters which sex X is, it won't be a secret anymore!"
This makes no sense.  When it "matters which sex X is," will X give up the overalls and walk around naked?  Or in sex-appropriate clothing to signal X's sex?  Will X have to give up the freedom X had as a child, and adopt sex-appropriate pastimes and career?  A person's sex continues to matter a lot to adults; children are often granted a fair amount of gender freedom until they reach adolescence, at which point they're supposed to get serious, knuckle down, and conform.

The best I can say for Gould's fable is that she recognizes that raising a child without gender expectations would be very difficult -- as difficult as raising a child to conform to gender norms.  X's parents are given a manual thousands of pages long (they're up to page 85769 by the time X is in first grade), and are guided throughout the experiment by the scientists.  They must maintain a rigorous balance at all times -- indeed, their scientist-guides are as rigid in their prescriptions for socializing an X's gender as any conservative:
Ms. and Mr. Jones had to be Xtra careful.  If they kept bouncing it up in the air and saying how strong and active it was, they'd be treating it more like a boy than an X. But if all they did was cuddle it and kiss it and tell it how sweet and dainty it was, they'd be treating it more like a girl than an X.  On page 1654 of the Official Instruction Manual, the scientists prescribed: "Plenty of bouncing and plenty of cuddling, both.  X ought to be strong and sweet and active.  Forget about dainty altogether".
I almost think that Gould was satirizing the premise of the experiment there, and the idea some people hold that if we just left children to their own innate wisdom and goodness, racism and sexism and all bad things would disappear.  This belief begs the question of where all those bad things come from.  The usual response is that these attitudes are the result of having been carefully taught by wicked or, at best, misguided people.  But where did those careful teachers come from?  Where did their bad ideas come from ? Why are the ideas they teach so tenacious?  Why are they nevertheless so ineffective much of the time? The usual answer entangles us in an infinite regress that doesn't explain anything, but distracts the questioner long enough for the explainer to change the subject.  In Gould's story, after some initial confusion the children around X follow X's example, to the dismay of their parents, but the good guys win easily.  As we know, in real life it's not that easy.

I'll quote again the woman who told a symposium in 1971: “This short haircut, because it is mine, is a woman’s hairstyle. These so-called men’s boots, because I am wearing them, are women’s boots. This pipe, because I am smoking it, is a woman’s pipe. Whatever women wear is women’s wear. It is a matter of individual choice – and comfort.”*  To "live as a man" is any way a man lives; to "live as a woman" is any way a woman lives.

When Richard Seymour wrote about the boy from the court case living "as a girl," he meant living so as to conform to prevailing gender stereotypes.  By his logic, living either as a boy or a girl, as a man or a woman -- regardless of your body configuration or your sex chromosomes -- must be the product of bad faith at best, of abusive socialization at worst.  (Oddly, though, people who reject their assigned stereotype in favor of the opposite one are seen as heroic, free, non-binary.  And can a child "consent" to either?)  Adopting any gender identity apparently means accepting the stereotype, agreeing that certain modes of dress, certain body language, certain occupations, and so on have a gender.  They do only by the same social agreement and processes of socialization that Seymour characterizes as abusive.  Perhaps they are, but we can't get rid of them.  If we don't teach children sex roles, they'll invent their own.  Children aren't passive objects of socialization.  They resist, they create options, they socialize each other.

Seymour mentions "the absence of gender specialists consulted in court."  I find this curious, since expert testimony on gender is always culture-bound, and the results will be largely predetermined by which gender specialists are allowed to testify.  As a gay liberationist influenced by radical feminism I wouldn't trust a child's (or adult's) fate with them; call me old-fashioned if you like.  The only authority Seymour quotes in the post is the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933), who might or might be right in his opinions, but I wouldn't look to a Freudian or any other mental health professional for guidance on sexism.

Seymour says that the same parents who are "evasive and anxious in answering questions about sex, particularly if they are unhappy about their sex lives"
are usually strangely emphatic, insistent, about who is a boy and who is a girl, and about the strict relationship between birth-assigned sex and one’s future gendered life trajectory. They leave no doubt about the matter, even though many children quietly entertain the gravest doubts. Simply, where children want knowledge and independence, parents often communicate ignorance and obedience.
This seems to me to sentimentalize children.  Of course one might suggest that adults "leave no doubt about the matter" exactly in areas where they have many doubts, and little knowledge.  No one has much knowledge about gender, and it would be better to "communicate ignorance" than certainty (which is not the same as knowledge) where one is ignorant.  Most adults are no better informed about sex and reproduction than they are about gender, and their evasiveness comes partly from uncertainty about how best to answer the questions they're asked, and partly from anxiety about bodies, their own and their children's.  If they are insistent about "who is a boy and who is a girl," it's probably because it's how they were socialized, and I'm not sure that most children are any more interested in complex, indeterminate answers on that matter than adults are.  A lot of research has been done on children and gender in the eighty-plus years since Ferenczi died, and it indicates that even very young children are active participants in their construction of gender and other matters while they are still infants.  Children who vary from the prevailing norms aren't necessarily interested in ambiguity either.  They are often quite sure what is girl stuff and what is boy stuff.  While they should be allowed as much freedom as possible to chart their own course, their gender theories are as likely to be bullshit as their elders' are, and for the same reason.  Children who stray from official norms can be every bit as "emphatic" and "insistent" as the adults who try to confine them to those norms; I think Seymour takes for granted that the children are right and the adults are wrong.  I don't.

Against Seymour's stricture on "the strict relationship between birth-assigned sex and one’s future gendered life trajectory," I've noticed that advocates for gender atypical children, and at least some transgender adults are claiming a biological basis for gender variance.  They equate biological sex with the sex chromosomes or a tiny region of the brain and equate it with gender.  One such person, for example, claimed that "science is increasingly revealing to us that gender identity is more or less inborn"; a transgender friend told someone who asked her why she was trans that it was "a matter of brain structure"; both of these claims are false, just like the claim that homosexuality is more or less inborn and a matter of brain structure.  I don't know what Seymour thinks about this, but the current trend even for gender nonconformists is as hostile to the radical feminist position as any traditionalist, seeking to root gender in the body.  Failing that, they try to reify gender, as a pre-cultural autonomous essence rather than a cultural construction.  Both positions are incoherent and quickly become entangled in their contradictions, as Seymour's does.  A radical feminist position would be to abolish gender, but though I consider that desirable I'm not sure it's possible.  Even the radical Second Wave feminists who argued for the abolition of gender kept falling back on gender stereotypes.  It will be no more possible to abolish the socialization of children; the best we can do is try to make the process more flexible, open and humane.

*Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, Lesbian/Woman (Bantam Books, 1972), page 81.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Thank You for Pressing the Self-Destruct Button

It turns out this meme backfires on itself, as so many do.

I didn't notice at first that it's partly an exhortation to vote for the lesser evil if that will "shift your country as much closer to your ideal as possible."  That's pretty funny right there, since Dem loyalists were furiously denouncing the Lesser Evil option so recently.  I guess that if you don't actually say the words, it's okay.  (But if you say them three times quickly ...?)

The main thing, though, is that the meme amounts to a denunciation of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the DNC, and Democratic partisans.  Clinton most of all, though, who put her determination to be President ahead of every other consideration, including the probability that Sanders had a better chance of beating Trump.  Her ego, her entitlement, her notion that it was her turn now.  I can't think of a better example of "extreme individualism."  To ensure that she won the nomination, she played dirty, which some of her fans even thought amusing.  It's their party, after all, one such person wrote, which at least was honest: the party belongs to its elites and big donors, not to the rank and file who do the scut work of making phone calls, knocking on doors, driving voters to the polls -- let alone the voters themselves.  It's not about you, you individualist with your silly notions of government by the people.   Don't believe the fairy tales the elites told you, that elections are meant to choose the best candidate for office.  Don't believe the fairy tale drummed into your head since childhood, that American values and ideals have anything to do with the running of our government.  It's like the Bible: you're not supposed to take it literally, just have faith in your leaders.  Just don't reject the fairy tales during election season, or in the hearing of the real owners of the party.

I guess I'm more or less functional again, after spending a day walking around feeling stunned.  I needed to write to find out what I thought about Trump's victory, but I wasn't sure I wanted to know what I thought.  I stayed off Facebook yesterday, and timidly logged in today.  Before long my liberal friends' reactions had me angry again, and I was back in the fray.

Most notable, as I expected, were Democrats blaming everybody but themselves for the debacle. Paul Krugman was apparently leading the charge, but I hear Rachel Maddow was in there too.  If I'm not mistaken, that was one of the tendencies that drove Germany into the hands of the Nazis.  Did Germany lose the Great War?  It wasn't their fault, it was the Jews and the homosexuals and the Reds stabbing the Fatherland in the back, and women spitting on Our Troops.  Did Hillary lose this world-historical election?  It wasn't her fault, it was the Bernie Bros and Julian Assange and Jim Comey and all the haters who made voters stay away from the polls.

Most entertaining are the Dems who yell "Don't play the blame game!" when their own attempts to play the blame game are rebutted.  We can blame everybody, but don't you dare blame us -- that's being judgmental.  We aren't being judgmental, we're just pointing out who stabbed Hillary in the back...  Really, they are acting as we were warned Trump's followers would react if he lost.  I imagine I'll be seeing a lot more of that.

Meanwhile, what to do?  I don't have any answers, but some writers are making sense.  There are others, of course, but these two were close to hand.  It's alarming that so many liberals and progressives and near-rightists and neoliberals are freaking out, lashing out almost randomly, but that was only to be expected.  I can't go on, I'll go on.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Campaign 2020 Begins in Just Two Days!

The dishonesty of this meme is outrageous.

Whence (to unleash my Inner Grammar Nazi) did so many Americans get this idea?  Like so many rhetorical questions, it's easy to answer: Along with belief in Santa Claus, we get it from the official propaganda we're dunned with from childhood onward, down to the marketing campaigns of the candidates themselves. 

Partisans only drag out this line when they're dealing with voters who don't find their candidate inspiring, or even worse, who've criticized their candidate substantively.  Or, worst of all, that they will vote for their candidate as the lesser evil.  I suppose it's preferable to the vicious abuse they indulge in when this one doesn't work. It's what we saw in 2008 and 2012: "Barack is dreamy! He's all about Hope and Change! He could have big positive repercussions for progressive politics!  He'll make us feel good about being Americans again! He can pronounce 'nuclear'!  He'll end the wars!" Anyone who pointed out that Obama was a center-right corporatist and war-lover was a Republican troll or a cynical non-voter. Then, after he was in office and showed himself to be a war-lover and a center-right corporatist, his fans asked who'd been so foolish as to think he'd be any different from any other politician -- what did you expect, Che Guevara?  Weren't you paying attention?

It's 3:26 p.m. on Tuesday in Seoul as I write this, which means it's just after midnight on Tuesday in Indiana.  The polls will open in a few hours.  In twenty-four hours this foully dispiriting election campaign will be over, and the next one will begin.  If Clinton pulls off a decisive victory, Trump voters will throw tantrums; we can hope it won't get any worse than that.  Clinton fans will be kvelling about her greatness, the world-historical moment of a female President (sure, other countries have elected female heads of state, but they aren't us) and the glorious peace and prosperity she'll give us.  If the results are close, if Clinton wins in the Electoral College or something, everybody will be throwing tantrums.  If Clinton loses, the recriminations will be "epic," as the Internet says: everybody but Clinton herself, or the Democratic Party Leadership, will be blamed.  I'll be back in the US a week later, if I haven't applied for political asylum in the meantime.  By then, I hope, the dust will have more or less settled.

Monday, November 7, 2016

It's a Korean Thing, You Wouldn't Understand; or, The Master's Tools

Cecily. I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Miss Prism. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Someday I should write a serious discussion of the Korean director Im Kwon-Taek's 1993 classic Sopyonje, but for now I'm interested in the way critics and audiences have tried to situate it as a Korean film - or as not-a-Korean film.  In doing so, I have to give away the ending, because it has been one of the most discussed aspects of the film.  So if you've put off watching Sopyonje for twenty years but want everything to be a surprise, stop reading now.  (The entire film, with English subtitles, appears to be on YouTube.)

Sopyonje, made on a small budget by a commercial director as a personal project (but also to cope with the "quota" system on Korean movies at the time), was enormously and unexpectedly successful, on the international film-festival circuit but especially in Korea. Without any promotion at first, it opened on one screen but quickly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon.  The soundtrack CD was a hit, and the film was credited with sparking a revival of interest in p'ansori.  A book (in Korean) on the making and significance of the film, edited by Im and released a few months after its release, was also successful.  It did not break through as an art-house success outside Korea, though it got a lot of critical attention.

Sopyonje mostly takes part during the colonial period (1900-1945), when Korea was under Japanese occupation.  It's the story of an itinerant singer and his two adopted children.  The singer is an exponent of p'ansori, an old Korean musical form, involving one singer who tells a story to the accompaniment of one drum.  Partly because of Japanese cultural imperialism, which sought to wipe out Korean culture, and partly because of the Dread Pirate Modernity, which takes no prisoners, p'ansori and other traditional Korean arts are on the ropes.  (There's a funny scene where a little brass band walks through a village, trying to play Besame Mucho, a song which seems to have become popular in Korea over the years.)  Eventually the boy (the drummer) runs away, and the father feeds the girl singer a poisonous plant that renders her blind, both to keep her dependent and (he tells her) to make her a better artist by increasing her han, the supposedly essential Korean blend of bitterness and sorrow.  Years pass, the old man dies, and the two young people finally meet again in a small town.  They play together without acknowledging that they know each other, and separate again, probably forever.

It seems to me that a deliberately frustrating ending like this is no big deal, but numerous critics have felt it that it's a problem and have spent a fair amount of energy trying to figure out what it means.  In the collection Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema, edited by David E. James and Kyung-Hyun Kim (Wayne State, 2002), no less than three of the papers devote space to the ending of Sopyonje.

In "Sopyonje and the Inner Domain of National Culture," Julian Stringer writes:
When we showed Sopyonje at Indiana University in the spring of 1996, the post-screening discussion raised an interesting problem of cross-cultural analysis ... [W]e -- most of whom were non-Koreans -- felt "cheated" by the film's climactic moment ... [158]

Halfway through the p'ansori recital in the reunion scene, there is a startling effect that indicates a curious stylistic decision.  Im chooses to shut off all diegetic sound, compelling his characters to be mute.  We see Song-hwa sing her song and we see Tong-ho bang his drum, but we no longer hear them.  A non-diegetic, "traditional" Korean piece -- performed on flute and synthesizer [!] -- is brought to the front of the mix, and the most climactic moment of this musical reunion is denied to the listening subject ... No wonder some of us felt cheated.  With all the fuss made up until now about the authenticity and beauty of p'ansori, why don't we get its full expression at this crucial juncture?

In short, what some of us felt at that screening in Bloomington in 1996 was that here is an example of a film not quite delivering all we had been led to expect from it.  Sure, we could rationalize our response, appreciate that there are perfectly good aesthetic reasons for blocking the soundtrack in this way.  Because we see the rapture of a blind woman experiencing an easing of her pain, doesn't the emphasis on sound manipulation approximate Song-hwa's own heightened sense of perception?  Yet we also couldn't help feeling that perhaps we just didn't "get it."  Given the narrative's overall reliance on the importance of Korean national culture, there seemed to be a level to Sopyonje that, as foreigners, we did not have access to.

This thought also came to me when I subsequently read some of the English-language critical reviews [160].
However, the "English-language critical reviews" Stringer goes on to quote are all by Korean critics, and none of them actually addresses the technical point that bothers him so much.  (I should perhaps mention that I wasn't at that screening, alas.  I might have heard about it from Korean friends, but I probably had to work.  I didn't see Sopyonje myself until it was released on DVD a decade later.  Nor, as far as I recall, have I ever met Julian Stringer.)

It seems to me that burying a diegetic (that is, within the film's world) performance under a non-diegetic (the viewer's perspective, unheard by the characters in the film) overdub is not unheard of in Western movies.  Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't express the character's inner world; it can be the filmmakers' comment on the action, or can be meant to manipulate the viewer.  To ascribe Im's decision to some mystic Korean cultural essence that "we, as foreigners, did not have access to" is to fall prey to the very Orientalism that post-colonial academics as supposed to avoid -- especially when it can hardly be a traditional Korean device, relying as it does on some pretty advanced technology.  (It happens that the diegetic performance in that scene was also a technological artifact: Stringer mentions later that the actress, though a p'ansori singer, didn't sing her part, which was overdubbed by another p'ansori singer.  The character's singing is in fact a composite of three different singers.)

Further, Stringer's remark about "the film's overall reliance on the importance of Korean national culture" overlooks the significance of the film's title.  "In pansori, there are Sopyonje and Dongpyonje," the critic Chung Sung-il writes in his monograph on Im (Korean Film Council, 2006).  "The former is the sound of the western side of Korea and the latter is the eastern."  Im was trying to recover not a national culture but a regional one, namely Im Kwon-taek's own.  Though Korea was a small country even before it was divided at the 38th parallel, it had numerous regional divisions that went back centuries and that persist to this day.  Chung writes, "Sopyonje isn't new in the perspective of aesthetics but it is the first film to declare IM's work in his sixties."

It seems to me that Stringer's reaction to his first viewing of Sopyonje was both naive and arrogant: if he didn't understand the reunion scene, it must have been because it involved some mystical Korean aesthetic which he, as a foreigner, could not have understood.  (I suspect that the "we" who "felt cheated" by it were really "I," Stringer himself.)  This is what is commonly called Orientalism, treating Asian cultures as radically, essentially Other from the "West," and each region as monolithically homogeneous.  It's also unlikely for numerous reasons.  Film is an international "language," developed in the twentieth century in numerous countries at the same time, and South Korean filmmakers (to say nothing of audiences) even of Im's generation were heavily influenced by Hollywood and European cinema.  There are different approaches to filmmaking and narrative, but they coexist within each country.  (See, for example, Robert Ray's How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies [Indiana, 2001], and Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media [Routledge, 1994/2013].)  Stringer concedes some of this, but he still tries to find a specifically Korean filmic syntax in the scene.

Ultimately, Stringer says, "I no longer feel disappointed [by the reunion scene]; rather I am impressed with how Im Kwon-Taek and his composer, Kim Su-ch'ol, have manipulated the soundtrack so as to suggest the presence of national thematics" (172).  He also concedes that "As a Western film student, my sensitivity to formal questions (as well as 'orientalist' fascinations?) may produce rupture where no rupture actually exists" (173), but still holds that "Such possible objections do not invalidate the interpretation of Sopyonje offered in this chapter" (174).  I disagree.

Now let's look at the Korean critics who contributed to this volume, and how they read Sopyonje's reunion scene.  In "Sopyonje: Its Cultural and Historical Meaning" the sociologist Cho Hae Joang quotes reactions to the Sopyonje phenomenon by numerous Koreans, ranging from students to other critics.  Cho claims that Korean "viewers seem to have easily accepted [the reunion] scene," quoting praise from the novelist Pak Won-so.  She also quotes Im himself: "The reason that they can't meet but can't bring themselves to reveal their identities is that they know all too well that neither can be of any help to the other in the future" (143).  "This," Cho comments,
is definitely a view of humanity that is far from the "Korean" way of thinking.  This "wordless parting" scene is an astonishingly new feature of South Korean movies, though it is found quite frequently in Italian and French art films.  Considering that not too long ago South Koreans wept copiously while watching the televised reunions of families separated during the Korean War, this final scene is not "Korean" at all [143].
This is a rather astonishing claim in its own right.  First, if the scene is so un-Korean, why did Korean audiences accept it so easily, as Cho says they did?  Second, it is one thing to weep at the reunions of real families separated by war and national division -- I see no reason to suppose that Americans wouldn't weep at such a spectacle, as I have myself when watching the televised reunions while in Korea -- and another to accept a different resolution for two fictional characters separated by the demands of art; one might very well weep at the scene anyway, because the two choose not to reunite.

Nor is it certain that all Koreans found the scene easy to accept.
In reply to a student who, during an invited lecture at Yonsei University in fall 1993, asked Im why he didn't allow the brother and sister to unburden their hearts in reunion, he said that his personal familiarity with the drifter's life had taught him that there were times when it was better for separated relatives not to meet [144].
Judging by the different individuals quoted by Cho, it seems likely to me that Korean audiences (like audiences everywhere) did not react to the reunion scene uniformly: some accepted it easily, some resisted.  Some probably overlooked it because they were more interested in other aspects of the film, such as its focus on traditional Korean culture and its usefulness as a spur to Korean cultural nationalism.  Im's answer to the student at Yonsei University indicates that he didn't see the scene has having universal applicability anyway: it was his opinion, based on his experience, that there are times when it is better for separated relatives not to meet -- which implies that there are times when it is better that they should meet.  Cho ascribes the protagonists' failure / refusal to reunite to Im's "modern and Buddhist perspective on life" (144), and on his "humanism," worldviews that are not exactly compatible.  Korean culture before modernity is a hybrid of "indigenous" elements, Buddhism, Confucianism; since Buddhism has been part of Korea for hundreds of years, it's hard to see how this perspective is "not 'Korean' at all."

Cho claims that "by focusing on aesthetic obsession and the drifter lifestyle ... the movie actually touch[es] the sensibilities of modern urbanites who feel that 'life is ultimately a sojourner's road and a lonesome journey'" (145).  Perhaps modern urbanites do feel this way, but neither aesthetic obsession nor the drifter's life are specifically modern phenomena.  Traditionalists love to imagine a past when everyone was settled, but Korea's history is pretty turbulent, and even if most Koreans stayed in one place throughout their lives, many did not.  Not that Cho is a traditionalist: she has a Ph.D. from UCLA and is a professor at a modern university in Korea.  As she recognizes, "The movement to revive traditional culture is really an indication of modernity and an effort to rescue oneself" (146).  And similar tensions exist in the West, including the US.  Which indicates that a film which focused on settled, stable peasants instead of drifters would also touch the sensibilities of modern urbanites who'd like to escape the unsettledness of their lives; in either case, American urbanites no less than Korean ones could have their sensibilities touched by it.  There's more to say about this, but I'll try to address it in other posts to come; for now I want to stick with the significance of Sopyonje's ending.

The third contribution to Im Kwon-Taek that focuses on Sopyonje is by Chungmoo Choi, an exponent of critical theory and an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine when this book was published.  In "The Politics of Gender, Aestheticism, and Cultural Nationalism in Sopyonje and The Genealogy," Choi summarizes the film's ending as follows:
In place of a melodramatic ending, the film depicts them performing together the Tale of Simch'ongi, a piece in the p'ansori repertory that Song-hwa has perfected. The two thus sublimate han.  The next day they set off in different directions, and we learn that Song-hwa has been raising a daughter [106].
Choi declares that Sopyonje "elicited a collective outpouring of han -- and an abundant flow of audiences' tears" (107), which undermines Cho's claim that weeping at real family reunions is somehow incompatible with weeping at a refused reunion in a fictional narrative.  But did Im reject melodrama in the ending of Sopyonje?  

Julian Stringer says that "the reunion scene is so effective partly because it represents the culmination of a narrative process that has built up themes of loyalty and desire and then resolved them in a satisfyingly melodramatic fashion" (165).  I think he's right here.  Renunciation is as melodramatic as reunion.  Think of a classic Hollywood weeper like Stella Dallas, which ends with Stella accepting her daughter's estrangement for the latter's own good.  If Song-hwa and Dong-ho going their separate ways inspired "an abundant flow of audiences' tears," Sopyonje fits comfortably into the category of melodrama, which is at least as popular in Korea (albeit disparaged) as it is in the West.

As a postcolonial theorist, Choi is deeply invested in opposing West and East, colonizer and colonized, "scientific rationality" and "non-articulative, aesthetic felicity."  I'm always bemused when Western-trained academics, using concepts and methods and citing authorities from the West, try to set up and perpetuate these binaries.  As Choi is aware, the modernizing, rationalizing changes that overcame Korea also overcame Western cultures, and are evaded and resisted here no less than there.  The past of rural traditional innocence is cast as the Good Other, menaced by the Bad Other of urban industrial rationalism.  (It's not clear in this formulation just who, or where, the Self is.)  Previous foreign impositions, like Confucianism, are brushed aside, though they had their own deleterious effects: Choi seems to blame the patriarchal violence in Sopyonje on colonialism, for example, though she must know better.  The father's sexual use of his adopted daughter has its counterpart in the pre-modern, non-Western, anticolonialist prophecies of Ezekiel; equating patriarchy, let alone violence, with modernity is a basic error that undermines the rest of Choi's argument.  But, again, more on this another time, I hope.

Cho Hae Joang thought that Im Kwon-taek's intention in the reunion scene was "un-Korean."  Since Im is Korean, Cho's essentialism is both misleading and harmful.  Im probably isn't a typical or "representative" Korean, but given Sopyonje's immense and unexpected popularity in Korea, being atypical is clearly no barrier to Koreanness.  But Koreans took away many different meanings and lessons from their viewing of the film.  Like any other nationality, Koreanness is a historical accident of birth, not a mystic essence inscribed in blood or, in the currently fashionable metaphor, DNA.  That doesn't mean that misunderstanding is only a failure to engage, of course: I can't apprehend the Korean language simply by adjusting my consciousness, I must put in time, study, and effort.  Nor am I saying that human nature is the same everywhere; there are numerous human natures within each culture.

I must confess my own naivete and arrogance in approaching Korean and other foreign media: it never occurred to me that I couldn't in principle understand them, that some Korean essence would render Korean film's meanings inaccessible to me.  That's not to say that I understood everything I saw without difficulty; of course not.  The Korean friends who introduced Korean films to me explained much of the historical and cultural background, some of which affected my understanding and some of which didn't.  The more I learned about Korean history and culture, the more Korean films and TV I watched, the better I understood.  My understanding will never be perfect, but as the widely varying reactions to Sopyonje by Koreans show, that would be just as true if I were Korean. (After all, I don't share or understand many of the values assumed in American media and art either. The current electoral campaign has brought home to me very forcefully that many of my fellow citizens, Republicans and Democrats alike, might as well be from Uranus.)  I think that assuming in advance that one won't be able to understand a foreign artwork is like assuming in advance that one won't be able to understand someone's foreign accent: it's a refusal to understand, rather than an inability.  I believe that approaching a film or any other work with the attitude that understanding is possible is much more productive.

Here's another possibility, from Im Kwon-taek himself, quoted in Chung Sung-il's monograph:
However, if it was simply contemplating while giving up the past, Sopyonje couldn’t have gained so much attention from the public. I had to let the accumulated resentment and grudges from giving up oneself to surface in a bright way. I had to show the bright light of willing to win and overcome the past. When I say giving up, I don’t mean just the unfair and sad han. I meant it including the bright and joyful side as well. If Sopyonje only displayed despair from giving up, it wouldn’t have touched the hearts of so many people. I saw that in pansori. Pansori itself is lonely and sorrowful and it sounds like that too at first. However, if you put it in a motion picture and let your ears become familiar with it, the listener begins to accept it as a great form of song. Once you start to feel inspiration, you can feel humor and joy. I believe that’s what the public saw.
As I read this, one can see the ending of Sopyonje as a resolution of the story: Song-hwa and Dong-ho have been trapped by their painful past, but their meeting enables them to leave it behind and move into their respective futures.  (One reason for the tears of the "reunited" families Cho Hae Joang mentioned is that they aren't really reunited: they've been brought together briefly for a televised spectacle, but they will once again be separated, and have to return to their respective sides of the 38th parallel.  The national division leaves them frozen in the past; if reunification of North and South took place, they too would have to face the future.)  I don't know how many Koreans saw it that way, but it's a reasonable and helpful message to take from it.  A major problem of postcolonial critics like Choi Chungmoo is their assumption that colonized people have no agency: they are totally determined by the forces that rule their countries.  In reality, people not only resist those forces, they select which aspects and products of modernity and foreignness they will adopt, as their ancestors did with previous foreign imports.  This is a more hopeful approach to postcolonial theory; I think it has the added benefit of being true.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Jeez, You Two, Get a Room!

I just saw a link to an interview President Obama gave to Bill Maher on religion in public life. As usual, Obama was vacuous and dishonest. He acknowledged that an atheist would have trouble being elected to public office in the US, and said that "we should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and agnostics, are respected." This is the same kind of gaseous platitude he routinely uses to discuss gay people or feminism (or race, for that matter), and I'm not gratified.

I suppose the key word here was "private," since Obama himself has expressed disrespect for people's "private religious beliefs," presumably because those beliefs were publicly stated and acted on.  (Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, for example, were nice guys but a couple of unrealistic idealists who didn't understand the cold hard facts of life as Obama does.  They didn't keep their religious beliefs "private" either.)  And most of Obama's fans do the same. So does Maher, whom I hold in contempt. (Why? Because he's contemptible.)  But no one is obligated, under either the First Amendment nor the more general principle of toleration, to respect anybody else's beliefs. Nor, under the same principles, is anyone obliged to keep their beliefs "private." (I'll start doing so when liberal Christians start.) What we are obliged to respect is people's right to hold beliefs and express them -- even publicly -- though we are free to disrespect and criticize them.  Maybe that's what he meant, but it's not what he said. Thanks, Mr. President, but no thanks.

I have the impression that when most people use the word "freedom," they're thinking of a comfortable and easy condition, perhaps because they're thinking of their own freedom, not of others'.  Living in a free society will be comfortable in some ways, but often very uncomfortable in others.  Not only you, but other people have the right to express their views, hold their opinions, and attend the church (or no church) of their choice.  And since other people's beliefs are often highly offensive, it can be uncomfortable not to be able to silence them.  But being uncomfortable won't kill you.

(And if anyone is distressed because I disrespected the sacred person of Our POTUS, I can only say that if he doesn't want to be criticized, he should keep his "private" opinions [and his religious beliefs, which he has often talked about in public] private.)

Friday, November 4, 2016


One irony of this meme, which I believe is meant to play off others based on skeletons, is that "people who vote for Trump" actually have the same skulls as people who don't.  But Occupy Democrats, a scabrous bunch mooching off the integrity of the Occupy Movement, feel free to toss inclusiveness (to say nothing of mere fact) under the bus for partisan purposes.

The other irony is that it was not Australopithecines but Homo Sapiens that invented nuclear weapons, poison gas, racism, Nazism, religion, antigay bigotry and all the other evils this meme attributes to our distant ancestors and Trump voters.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Change, Casting, Culture, and Comfort Zones Revisited

Someone linked to this article on Jonathan Franzen the other day.  I'd better begin by admitting that I haven't read any of Franzen's books -- I got about 100 pages into Freedom before I gave up -- and that his insulting remarks about Oprah Winfrey's book club in 2001 gave me a bad impression of him that I haven't bothered to try to shake.  Despite his current cachet as an American literary giant, for Salon to take a few pokes at him indicates that he's a safe target.  What I read of Freedom seemed like ordinary MFA prose; he doesn't seem very important as far as I'm concerned, but I took a look at the article anyway.

I was surprised, because I didn't see any good grounds for hating him there.  For example, here's Reason Number One:
Why he will not be writing about race: “I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare…I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.”
This actually seems fair enough to me, especially because there is widespread hostility to white people writing about non-whites, or people from other cultures, and not without reason.  In Reason Number Two, Franzen explains further: "I’m lazy. I don’t like to do research for books ... I upbraid myself for not being a real novelist because I won’t go out with a notebook and gather impressions. I won’t wade into difficult situations trying to get material."  If you're not going to bother to inform yourself, stick with what you know, or make up imaginary worlds or something. That Franzen is honest enough with himself to recognize this speaks well for him, not badly, though one could fairly look down on him for having so little interest in people outside his immediate experience.  The main characters in Freedom were white suburbanites, whom I presume are the kind of people Franzen knows, but he didn't seem to have much interest in them either, except as punching bags.

I can look down on Franzen for his inability to engage with people who are different from him, but at the same time I don't approve of telling artists what subject matter to take on.  Artists do what they can, not necessarily what they would like to do.  Some can do research and enjoy it; good for them.  Some do "dare" to try to write from inside the heads of people who are superficially different from them (race, sex, culture, religion, are all superficial differences), and some do it well.  Artists may do whatever they feel called to do, though there's no guarantee they'll succeed, and there's no obligation on the part of readers or critics to ignore their failures.

Remember, though, the writer K. T. Bradford, who retreated to her comfort zone by taking a break from reading work by straight cis white male authors.  This move was widely misunderstood as a move away from her comfort zone, partly because Bradford herself confused the issue, framing it as a "challenge" to other readers to read writers different from them rather than like themselves, as she had.  It led to a lot of confused responses and discussion.  But again, I'm fine with people reading only in their comfort zones, or outside their comfort zones, or mixing it up.  I don't think you ought to prescribe these things, and anyone who tries tends to fall on their face, as Bradford did.  I might hate Jonathan Franzen for other reasons, though I'm not interested enough to find them; his self-exculpating remarks don't seem like a good reason to hate him -- rather the opposite.  They made me respect him a little, or disrespect him a little less.

Goodness, how time flies.  This post began as a response to a post on writing about the Other by John Scalzi, with contributions by other writers (including K. T. Bradford!) on Labor Day.  That was several weeks ago, but this issue isn't going away anytime soon.  I'm intrigued by the topic, partly because I'm a gay man and these issues have often come up in writing by and about us.  I was glad to see other people expressing my own first reaction, that individual characters are individuals, not their cultures.  But there's a problem with this, because characters are not people, nor individuals: they are abstractions who stand for all kind of things beyond themselves.  So this problem can't be brushed aside too lightly.

The whole issue of "representation" is very messy.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak did a fascinating discussion in her much cited (but, I suspect, seldom-read) "Can the Subaltern Speak?"  There's no agreement about what is an acceptable or positive depiction of gay men, to stick to my own People.  What one gay man considers positive will be a very bad, negative representation for another.  This came up, for example, in the movie "Cruising."  The gay leathermen who appeared as extras said it was great, and about time, that Real, Masculine gay role models were being shown in a Hollywood film.  Other gay men were outraged that these filthy degenerates were being depicted at all, instead of the respectable suburban Homo-Americans that none of them actually were, but wanted to see in Hollywood movies anyway.  (The controversy also involved other issues, but this was an important part of it.)  And some of the best, most-popular-among-gay-men, gay male characters have been created by straight and gay women.  And most gay people are so ignorant about the variety of real gay lives that I don't think "accuracy" really comes into it all that much; I think "wish fulfilment" plays a major role -- we should be depicted as we think we would like to be.  We certainly are no authorities on what is accurate or realistic -- but then, who wants fiction to be realistic anyway?

Then someone commented, "Rowling isn’t a very good writer – period. She’s a good story-teller, but all her characters are pretty one- or at best two-dimensional. It’s comical to even think of her attempting something like Native American characters."

I semi-agree with this, though I'm not sure that a good storyteller isn't a good writer.  She may be a poor stylist (though Rowling isn't that bad), with poor characterization, but if she's a good storyteller, she's got that strength and it's a major part of what she is as a writer.  But that's less important than the larger issue, which is: given this commenter's assumptions, why isn't it comical to even think of Rowling attempting something like English characters?  (For that matter, if wizards actually existed, I have no doubt that they'd have valid complaints about the way a Muggle chose to depict them.)  Why hold Rowling to a higher standard of characterization for "Native American" characters than for those of her own nation?  I'm not being snarky here. I see no reason to suppose that most readers really care about complexity of characterization.  And I'm sure that much of the appeal of the Harry Potter series, especially outside of England, has to do with its exoticising and unrealistic stereotypes about English life and in particular, about English boarding schools.  If accuracy really were a criterion, the whole series should be pulped and the films withdrawn - but accuracy isn't a criterion and it isn't going to happen.  Maybe Native American readers who loved the series are shocked now because they're seeing themselves through the same distorting lens, because they believed that Rowling's depiction of England was accurate.  And frankly, I see a lot of Othering of non-Indians by Native American writers, along with Othering of whites by Writers of Color generally.  It doesn't bother me -- sauce for the goose, you know -- and it comes in handy as a reminder for myself and others that artistic and moral laziness isn't limited to white people.

Incidentally, I liked Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch, which was effectively a Harry Potter novel in Nigerian-American drag.  But it had the same qualities that had disturbed me about the Potter books, mainly that its wizards were just as creepy and unpleasant as Rowling's wizards.  Not that Okorafor or Rowling unfairly or inaccurately stereotyped wizards, of course, since wizards don't exist.  The stereotypes are part of the appeal for most readers.

At around the same time Scalzi's post appeared I saw an article about representations of transgender people on TV and in the movies, focusing on the question of whether trans characters should be played by cis actors.  The writer of the article made a significant slip, however: they said that having cis actors play trans characters assumes that being trans is a performance, instead of a deep innate essence.  The latter may be true; what the writer overlooked is that acting is a performance. The actor is not the character.  This is a difficult concept for many people to grasp, I know, but it's true.  Many want to boo the actor as well as the villain she plays; others want to believe that the straight actor playing the gay character is gay, and secretly wants them.  Some gay people have expressed doubt whether a straight actor can play a gay character; one reason I doubt this is that they don't seem to have any reservations about gay actors playing straights, and indeed consider the suggestion that they can't to be discriminatory.  Which is one of the things that this issue is one that can't be resolved by thinking logically; no principle is really involved either.  Something else is going on.

Similarly, for example, there has been concern about white or Latino or Asian actors playing American Indians.  Or white or Latino actors playing Asians.  Or American actors of Asian descent playing characters of different national origin than the actors -- a Korean-Canadian playing a Chinese-Canadian, say; again, that indicates to me that something funny is going on.  Some of my Asian friends claim that they can distinguish a Japanese from a Chinese from a Korean on sight, though I doubt this; but English-speaking American actors are going to be harder to read.  Hollywood's notorious laziness and racism are factors here of course, but I don't believe they're the the whole story: some of the complaints and concerns are themselves rooted in racism, the belief that culture is In The Blood.

Consider too the controversy over the possibility that a black actor, Idris Elba, was being considered as the next incarnation of Doctor Who.  Since the Doctor has been played by several different actors over the span of the series, why not?  It was entertaining to watch fans and critics spluttering that the Doctor just is white (like Jesus or Santa Claus, I suppose).  Similar objections were raised to the idea of a black actor playing James Bond.  (Having Bond's boss M played by a woman seems to have gone over all right, however.)  Personally I liked the 2011 film version of Wuthering Heights, in which a black Briton played Heathcliff, but many objected, with often shaky arguments; at any rate, whatever he was, Bronte's ambiguous Heathcliff was not "white."  Yet he has often been played by white actors.  But how about the reboot of Dr. Doolittle, with the doctor moved from England to the US and a black American playing him?  I don't recall much fuss about that, but it's surely as much (or as little) of a dislocation.  And then there have been people who threw tantrums because black characters in the source material were played by black actors in the film.

And to bring things full circle, there was a kerfluffle recently because the latest Star Trek film was going to present Ensign Sulu as gay, supposedly as a "tribute" to the gay actor who'd originally played him.  The foolishness involved on all sides of that one was troubling, perhaps especially John Cho's concession to Asian/American sexism and antigay bigotry, "that Asians and Asian Americans might see it as a sort of continuing feminization of Asian men. Asian American men, Asian men have been basically eunuchs in American cinema and television, and I thought maybe it would be seen as a continuation of that."  A gay man is not a eunuch, for fuck's sake.  One would think we were still in the 1950s, and maybe we are.  Myself, I wanted a Kirk/Spock romance in the reboot, as a tribute to Kirk/Spock fan fiction -- not that I ever expected to see it.

But once again, it's clear that neither principle nor logic are involved here.  Marketing is the criterion, not artistic choice, though in popular entertainment it's generally impossible to separate the two.  But even when a decision is made for commercial reasons, it can work artistically if it's handled creatively.  If not, then it doesn't matter why the decision was made.  Marketing, however, attempts to find out what the public wants, or at least will buy; I'm sure what is going on in the minds of the public on this score.  Some changes are acceptable, others are not.  It seems to me that almost any change is okay if it works artistically, and since almost any change will offend someone (as I argued recently), artists or entertainers might as well do what seems right to them, try to justify it by how they execute it, and defend it when necessary.

More on this soon, I hope.