Sunday, May 26, 2019

Remember Why the Good Lord Gave You Eyes - Fetishize!

There's a lot of talk about erotic fetishization, usually across ethnic or "racial" lines, and I've written about it before.  While the term can apply to an actual thing, most often it seems to me to be in bad faith.  I think that "fetishization" now occupies the conceptual space formerly taken by "objectification," which also had its problems.  "Fetish" used to mean eroticized inanimate objects, usually because of their sexy associations: shoes, stockings, and the like.  It wasn't much of a stretch to extend the concept to the eroticization of physical traits (breasts, legs, hair, skin color), but for better or worse that seems to be within the realm of normal human sexuality.  It's almost never apparent where the line is being drawn between valid eroticism and fetishization, and there tends to be an indignant refusal to discuss the distinction.

As a writer, I've always been interested in how to write about bodies and sexuality without relying on objectifying cliches.  What surprises me is how many people don't even try: they embrace it.  It's okay to write or talk in praise of the desired person in order to excite yourself, but it's not necessarily going to excite the person you're courting, let alone your readers.

So I found this article intriguing.  It's hardly unique, but it's the first time I've come across such blatant intra-ethnic (or homoethnic?) fetishization online, rather than merely in print, so I can link to it for present and future discussion.  It might also be extreme -- though again, not unique -- in its blatancy.
The midday light against skinny musculature. Wide jawline converging to a chiseled point. Full set of teeth, the broadest smile. The torso and the hips and the groin a triangular continuity. Wanting to touch all his geometry.

What’s his name? He told me somewhere in our initial messages but I forgot. But can you forget what you really don’t care to remember to begin with?

J, the name started with a J, so Jesus or José or Juan. One of those. I know what needs to be known of him: his body, the photographic parceling of chest, face, dick, legs, ass, that he sent me; tell me what that tongue can do, I ask him, and he responds in detail, poetic prose of the body; a video sent giving motion to the body in gravity, its rotations, its gyrations, its penetrations; my descriptions in text of what I will do to him, how I want to do it, how I need him to be when my body is on his, in his, indistinguishable from his.

Call me shallow, girl, but I like it how I like it.
The writer is queer, Latinx, working on his Ph.D.  That probably explains, not the bad writing itself, but the particular kind of bad writing.  I think I'd rather read the messages from his paramour, their "poetic prose of the body."

Notice "the name started with a J, so Jesus or José or Juan"; the author repeats it more than once later in the post.  If a white guy wrote like this, he'd be roasted, and rightly, for dehumanizing his piece of trade; this writer would probably argue that it's different when you're from the same barrio, but he overlooks his own privilege (a word that doesn't appear in the post).  He's not completely unaware of it, but only with respect to his mother and father, not to his sex partners.  I've seen this before in other writing by immigrant / outsiders, including gay ones; indeed, I've come up against the same class and education issues myself.  When the writer says "I am an anomaly," he's wrong, even as a queer "college-educated MexiRican"; the territory he occupies has often been explored, agonized over, written about for close to a century now.

Ah well, he's young, I wasn't any better at that age myself.  It's curious though, in these days when there's so much complaint about the way college education supposedly dwells on race and class and other such issues, that the writer's schooling apparently skipped that stuff, even in graduate school where it supposedly runs rampant.  Nor am I condemning him for fetishizing his barrio boys.  I'm just citing his post as an example of ethnic/racial fetishizing within his own community.  The person who linked to it on Twitter blocked me when I pointed it out.  That's not how you fix the problem, kids.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Remember Pearl Harbor! or, When in Danger, When in Doubt

I know we're doomed, but I do hate being reminded of it.  In large part I must blame myself for giving in to clickbait.

To begin with, let me say that I have read Marie Kondo's book but have not watched her TV series.  As an accumulator if not a hoarder, I look from time to time at books on de-cluttering, so when I saw The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up at the library a few years ago, I checked it out and read it.  The only notable things about it were that the author was not an American, but I supposed that was a selling point; and that Kondo is a paid de-cluttering coach, who comes to your house and helps you get rid of your excess stuff.  Other than that, her advice was about the same as any other author I've read on this subject.

A couple of months ago the socialist-feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich set off a shitstorm when she posted a couple of mildly snarky tweets (now apparently deleted) about Kondo.  She suggested, for example, that the fact that Kondo works in her native Japanese rather than learning English indicates a decline in US imperial prestige.  Though I basically agree, I'd have put it somewhat differently, as a reflection of increased confidence by non-English speakers in our sphere of influence.  Ehrenreich also suggested that there's some Orientalism at work among Kondio's American fans, attracted by her winsome style (I believe Ehrenreich used the term "pixie-like").  Not having seen Kondo's show, I can't say for sure, but I find the suggestion highly plausible.  The response from Kondo's fans was a freakout: they accused Ehrenreich of demanding that Kondo learn English, when she was actually praising her for not doing so, and of Orientalism for detecting their Orientalism.  This response was, to my mind, the typical white-liberal, culture-of-therapy response to unacceptable statements: Oh how can you say such awful things you're a terrible person!!!  USA Today titled its piece on the brouhaha "In deleted racist tweet, author Barbara Ehrenreich attacks Marie Kondo."  That's how it's listed in the results of a search I did, and the URL indicates it was the original title of the story, but somewhere along the line "racist" was changed to "xenophobic."  I find this very significant, because in their coverage of actual racism by right-wing figures, corporate media almost never use the word "racist": they prefer euphemisms like "racially tinged," and even "xenophobic" is unusually direct in that world of discourse.

But that's by the way.  What got me started on this post was an article linked by some bookstores I follow on Facebook.  Published on the UK Independent's website (though at the end there's a copyright notice for the Washington Post), it extolled some "book hoarders who defy Marie Kondo."  Yeah, it's probably clickbait and shame on me for clicking through, but I thought I recognized a not uncommon pattern of reaction, not just in corporate media but in many people in other areas.
On an episode of her smash-hit Netflix special, Kondo advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few. The Internet did what it does best: It went bananas. How dare she come for books! #TeamClutter, meet #TeamCensorship. Of course, there was a backlash to the backlash, with the expected explanation from Kondo that not all books gotta go.

The visceral reaction, even without the social-media hyperbole, was hard to ignore. Books are more than objects. They are filled with ideas, stories, versions of ourselves, memories. Bookshelves are like your wardrobe: they send a message. And the message these famous book-lovers shared with us is loud and clear: Books spark joy. 
Well, of course they do.  I have several thousand books myself, and I wouldn't really feel happy in a home that didn't have at least one wall lined with them.  But I never felt as I read Kondo's book that she was telling her clients, let alone me personally, to get rid of all of them.  Even the linked article says only that she "advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few."  The problem for me is that books are the heaviest possession, taken collectively, that I have.  Like most renters, I don't own the stove or refrigerator in my apartment.  It's the books that make my upcoming move a daunting prospect.  If I had more money, I could hire movers to shlep them for me, but I don't.  I have to decide how far to "edit" my library, and even if I were the kind of person to pay a coach like Kondo, she could not make that decision for me.  I have to decide which of my possessions "spark joy," and there was nothing in her book that indicated that all my or your books have to go.

So where does this nonsense about "defying" Marie Kondo come from?  As if she went around to random residences, flanked perhaps by two armed Japanese grandmas, breaking down doors and bagging possessions for disposal while her victims stand by, wailing helplessly.  As if she even said that people had to get rid of all their books. Would anyone read her book or follow her show if they didn't have it mind to pare down their belongings?  Most ridiculous is that the bookstores that linked to the Independent article on Facebook are used bookstores.  That means they rely on people to "edit" their libraries for the books they stock.  Yet they linked to the article not to encourage people to sell them their unjoyful books, but to stir up panic that Marie Kondo will come for their books, as Obama in the minds of Trump supporters is coming for their guns.

Granted, the article is clickbait, and only one of the book lovers they interview even mentions Kondo, but as the Trump example indicates, paranoia that some evil figure wants to take your cherished stuff away is a real tendency.  So is the fantasy that the same evil figure wants to force birth control pills down your throat, or make you gay-marry even if you're not gay.  But so is the weird word-fu by which many people misread simple statements until they mean the opposite of their plain sense, or no longer make sense at all.  This particular example is harmless enough in itself, but it keeps the paranoia muscles toned up for other imaginary threats.  People aren't this stupid just over trivia; they are also stupid over things that matter.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Moral Exemplars

I want to post a slight revision to part of an earlier post that dealt with questions of what, if anything, happens to us after we die.  It won't affect my larger point, but I think it's worth bringing up.

That earlier post was inspired by the notice on Twitter of the death of an elderly Jesuit, James Schall, "a great, good, and holy man ... the best of men, and a good and faithful servant."  The name seemed familiar to me, but I couldn't think how, so I merely said that I'd never heard of him before that morning.  I was wrong, but it's not surprising that I'd forgotten him.

I've been meaning for some time to read The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest by John Gerard, a sixteenth-century Catholic priest who'd fled persecution under Queen Elizabeth I.  I don't remember how I first heard of it, but I was intrigued by the prospect of a glimpse into the mind of such a person, so I picked up a copy of the 2012 Ignatius Press edition at the library book sale.  I hadn't gotten further than the 2011 introduction, which lamented "the utter brutality of the English Protestants determined to stamp out the traditional faith of the English people" (x).

It was a fair enough complaint, but the writer was significantly silent about the utter brutality of English Catholics determined to stamp out religious dissent among the English people.  I suppose the writer considered Protestantism a novelty and therefore unworthy of toleration or humane treatment.  But then one would have to remember the utter brutality of Catholics around the world determined to stamp out the traditional pre-Christian faiths they encountered.  The mistreatment of Jews in Christian Europe is a prominent, scandalous example of such cruelty.  The writer must have been aware of this history; but only the martyrdom of Catholics by Protestants outraged him enough to mention.  "The list of English martyrs from this period is long and distinguished," as he remarks, but only Catholics count as martyrs for him.

"The legal penalties against Catholics lasted into the nineteenth century and some minor form still exist," he laments.  "The Church of England is but a shadow of its former self."  This brought me up short at first -- he seemed to be regretting that the Church of England no longer tortures or executes Catholics; but then I realized that he was referring to the Catholic Church of England, the only true faith, which isn't what it used to be.  (In general the writing in this Introduction is just that sloppy.)  True that -- as Berlioz once observed, now that the Catholic Church no longer inculcates the burning of heretics, her creeds are charming.  I don't see this falling away as a bad thing, but I'm not an elderly Roman Catholic who presumably never got over the heretic Pope John XXIII and his assaults on traditional faith.

It was only when I came to the end of the Introduction, which I'd decided to reread for its moral myopia, that I noticed the author's name: Father James V. Schall of Georgetown University.  I looked at my post from April, and behold, it was he!  I suppose Schall was not obliged to balance out his denunciation of the English Protestants with an acknowledgment of the contemporary cruelty of their Catholic countrymen, and I wonder if a hardcore Catholic publisher like Ignatius would have permitted it anyway.  But I doubt it ever occurred to him.

It occurred to me as I was mulling over this post that there's a lot of indignation in this country about "guilt" -- white guilt, male guilt, over discrimination and oppression that happened long ago (say, fifty or fewer years).  Most of this spleen seems to be vented by Christians, usually conservative Christian males.  Yet recognizing, repenting, and making atonement for guilt, both individual and collective, is a traditional part of Christianity and Judaism.  By their own standards, why shouldn't Christians feel guilt over the offenses they and their forebears have committed in the name of their faith?  Instead we get the saintly George H. W. Bush, who declared that he would never apologize for anything America had done ("I don't care what the facts are") and dear Joe Biden, who complacently declares he's not sorry for anything he's ever done.

Am I saying that James Schall was a bad man?  I still don't know enough about him to say.  What I'm saying here is that he evidently was "a good and faithful servant" to some of the less edifying tendencies in the past of his church, and that led him to forget, conveniently, matters that were relevant to his topic of persecution and martyrdom.  Catholic persecution of Protestants doesn't, of course, excuse the Protestant persecution of Catholics -- or the Protestant persecution of other Protestants, which was going on at the same time.  Such internecine violence is not unique to Christianity, but it does seem to be endemic to it.  That's what led to the rise of religious toleration in Europe: as I've said before, in order to end persecution of themselves, Christians had to forgo the pleasure of persecuting others.  Some Christians today are still nostalgic for those days of moral relativism, when you could burn someone else at the stake and be outraged if someone burnt you.  I suspect that Schall was one of these.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

May Day

For International Workers' Day, as it's known in most of the world, let me commend to you Park Kwang-su's 1996 biopic of the South Korean labor activist Jeon (or Chun) Tae-il, who in 1970 immolated himself as a protest against the oppressive and illegal conditions in the garment sweatshops of Seoul.

A Single Spark was my introduction to South Korean film.  A Korean friend, a student at IU, rented it on VHS from a local Oriental grocery to show me.  He told me it was important for me to see, and he was right. I'm very grateful for his guidance.  The videotape had no subtitles, and my friend interpreted for me -- not just the dialogue, but the history and politics, about which I knew little at the time.  I later learned that the film had been partially crowdsourced; if you watch to the end credits, you can see a long list of contributors.

Later, I read the biography of Jeon Tae-il that had inspired the movie.  It was translated into English by Jeon's sister Soon-ok, who after his death went to university and became a professor of Labor law.  The Korean original was written in the 1980s, during the dictatorship, and circulated semi-clandestinely.  The frame story of the film, involving a writer and his worker wife, is fictional, but on Jeon's life the story stays remarkably close to the book.  It remains one of my favorite films.  Eventually it was released on DVD in Korea, with some good extra features, but that, like the book, is out of print.  I'm glad it can still be seen on YouTube.