Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Fantasy Police

While I was puttering around this morning after a late night, my eye lighted on Samuel Delany's On Writing (Wesleyan, 2005) and I decided to reread his remarks on Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye.  That novel's premise is that a young black girl, living in the South on the cusp of the Second World War, becomes obsessed with the idea of having blue eyes and goes mad.  Quite mad.  I'm going to reread The Bluest Eye soon, I hope (I say that every time I think of Delany's critique, but this time I mean it), but my attention was caught today by this passage:
Morrison's novel aligns itself with the Fantasy Police.  Reading it, I find myself asking: What's wrong with wanting to be different from what you are?  The assumption that wanting to be other than you are means that you hate yourself is pathological and patently absurd.  A much clearer and more articulate argument might be posed that to desire effectively to be different, actually to expend energy to bring that difference about (to become surgically a woman if you are born a man; to become surgically a man if you are born a woman; to reconstruct your foreskin if you were circumcised before you could consent to it; to straighten your hair if you don't like it kinky; to wear blue contact lenses if you have brown eyes and dark skin; to wear dreadlocks if you were born with straight blond hair; to pierce, or tattoo, or or decorate your body in any way at all; to exercise or diet to contour your body toward whatever ideal you set yourself) requires much more self-confidence and a clear sense of who you are than those who never question or wish to adjust their bodily reality at all [166-7].
That is a long sentence, so don't lose sight of its beginning: that a much clearer and articulate argument to that effect might be posed.  I'm not sure I'd agree entirely with it myself, since I'm not sure what "a clear sense of who you are" is; I'd have to see a fuller articulation of it before I could decide.  But I still like his basic complaint.  Delany is black himself, and he's fully aware that "whatever ideal you set yourself" isn't necessarily a pure spark that comes out of a pure individual core: it's affected (though not completely determined) by the environment one grows up in.

I'd also argue that at least some decorations and other changes we may may make to our bodies aren't seen as recuperating or expressing our original selves before our parents conceived us.  People often try out different looks, even selves, without necessarily thinking of them as our essential being.  Whether a given modification feels like an expression of Self depends on the individual: the same look that represents a move toward the ideal for one person might just be this week's fashion statement for another.  But I think of this as an extension of Delany's point, not a refutation: why shouldn't people try on different selves, experiment with body ornament, and so on?  I don't think those experiments are rendered invalid if they don't last a lifetime.

Delany continues a couple of paragraphs later:
The accusation of self-hatred, whether racial or sexual (and notice, it is only blacks, only gays, only Jews, only women who are ever accused of hating themselves -- never straight white Protestant males ...), once we are attuned to it, always carries clear and persistent overtones of sour grapes from the accusers.  ... This has a common name in discussions of liberationist political analysis: blaming the victim [167].
Again, I go only part way with Delany here.  For one thing, it seems to me that straight white Protestant males are accused of self-hatred, usually under the name "liberal guilt" or (formerly) "radical chic."  If a man sides with feminism, a heterosexual with gays, a white person with anti-racism, a Jew with Palestinian struggle, he or she will be accused of self-hatred, and of inauthenticity at the very least.  (You can see this in many attacks on straight white Jewish Noam Chomsky: because he isn't poor, his criticisms on the privilege of the wealthy are hypocritical -- but if he were poor, he would be accused of mere envy of what he hasn't got.)  A blond, blue-eyed person who cultivates dreadlocks will be accused of cultural appropriation, if not overt racism.  Which is wack, if not racist itself.

Still, Delany's basic point is I think a good one.  (There's more to his critique of Morrison that's relevant here, but I'm not going to comment more until I've reread her book.)  I've written before about the same pattern among gay men seeking authenticity either in effeminacy or in machismo.  I think the two positions cancel each other out, but are to be opposed whenever they rear their heads.