Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Reading

I don't think I can overstate the influence Roland Barthes' “The Death of the Author” has had on me. It (along with chapter one of this book) launched the line of inquiry that led me to my current studies, which makes it basically responsible for both my current life and my foreseeable future.

I'm still wrestling with it, because I am still trying to figure out the concept of authorial intent. Mostly, I think I'm with Barthes: externally established authorial intent is of no account; we have no access to the psychological state of the author as ey was writing; and we should want no such access beyond what we have in the text itself. Ricoeur makes this a little clearer, I think, by distinguishing in speech between the utterer's meaning (what the speaker intends to say) and the utterance meaning (what the sentence in fact says), and explaining that in written discourse we only have access to the latter. What I get from this is that if “what the text says” and “what you meant to say” are not the same thing, that's your fault for not writing it better.

But there's an additional layer of complication, which is: is there any such thing as “what the text says”? Texts don't have mouths. They don't say anything unless somebody reads – that is, interprets – them. So I'll refine that accusation: if “what somebody reads in your text” and “what you meant to say” are not the same thing, that's your fault for not writing it better.

But is that fair? It's the principle I generally operate on, but it's hard work. If, say, someone calls me out for problematic assumptions in something I wrote, my first instinct is to defend myself by 'splaining, “That's not what I meant!” But I stop. I remind myself that intent is not magic. I remind myself that externally established authorial intent does not matter. I wrote what I wrote, and if even one person reads something problematic there, the problem lies with what I wrote, not with eir reading of it.

But. But.

I also have a belief – a tenuous belief, a belief I am struggling with, a belief to whose demolition I am open, but a belief nonetheless – that anyone can read anything in(to) any text. And is it then fair to hold the author responsible for everything that could be read into eir text?

Anyone can read anything in(to) any text. Does that mean you can take “A Modest Proposal” at face value, ignoring its satirical intent? Does that mean you can reformat “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in”and declare it a short story, rather than a poem? Does that mean you can replace every instance of the word “nunnery” in Hamlet Act III Scene I with “ham sandwich”?

Well... I don't like that phrasing. I don't like telling people what they can and can't do with texts. Of course you can do any of those things. You have a find and replace function in your word processing software. And I take a First Amendment approach to reading texts – I believe you have the right to read any way you want to. I also believe that everyone in the entire world has the right to tell you that your “Get thee to a ham sandwich” reading of Hamlet is utterly ridiculous.

But you know what? You don't have to listen to the entire world. If you find more meaning in “Get thee to a ham sandwich” than in “Get thee to a nunnery”, you can do that to Hamlet. Really. It's called fanfiction.

At its best, fanfiction is a glorious corrective, an enactment of what-might-have-been. “Get thee to a ham sandwich” is a flippant example, but there are countless examples of people rewriting texts that spoke to them, and making them speak better. Star Trek fan who wishes TOS had more women in it? Gender-flip Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Twilight fan unhappy with its total queer erasure? Make a Jakeward slashvid. Rationalist Harry Potter fan? Rewrite the series with a rationalist Harry Stu.

Fanwork is awesome because it blurs or even erases the boundary between reading a text and writing it. There's no clearer demonstration of my belief that all readings are also writings.

However – if all readings are also writings, to what extent can an author be held accountable? Death of the author is a great concept, but in this world of internet discourse that's neither exactly speech or exactly writing, author accountability matters. And comments sections mean that, when it comes to blog posts and tweets and Facebook status updates, we can have access to the utterer's meaning as well as the utterance meaning.

This idea that what we're doing online is a whole new form of discourse still needs a lot of work, and I'm getting pretty excited about doing some of it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On Writing

Historically, speech has been privileged over writing.

Plato said writing weakens the memory, ruining true reminiscence and true wisdom.

Socrates said writing is static, etiolated, defenseless.

Rousseau blamed writing for isolation, domination, and inequality.

Bergson said writing is dull, empty, dead.

They all thought spoken discourse was the site of real meaning. Speech is the genuine, immediate, meaningful expression of interiority – the true way of bridging the fundamental isolation of one human from another. Writing is exterior, passionless, hopelessly distanciated from both reader and writer.

(I'm cribbing all this from Ricoeur's Interpretation Theory, btw, chapter 2: “Speaking and Writing”.)

We're living in an age where the distinction between speech and writing has been thoroughly blurred. (I dedicate all my Facebook chat logs to you, Derrida.) In fact, so much of our “spoken” discourse is now written or in some way recorded – on an almost daily basis I have conversations via text message and Facebook chat, and I don't even remember the last time I used my cell phone to call someone – that maybe it's a whole new category of discourse. People are discussing this, and I hope with a bit of time and effort on JSTOR and at the university library I can find a lot more stuff on the philosophy of internet-age discourse (recommendations are always welcome, friends!).

That said... writing is still my primary mode of discourse.

Writing isn't just the fact of putting words down on page/screen. It's a whole way of thinking. I write when my pen meets the paper and when my fingers strike the keyboard, but I also write when I construct passages of text in my head (whether they wind up actually written down or not).

In writing I can express myself without the impediments of physicality. In writing, no one expects me to decode all the mystifying subtleties of body language and facial expressions, and no one imputes to me implications I did not intend based on such subtleties that I was unknowingly expressing. In writing, no one will call me out for mumbling, or confuse me with an unexpected question, or look at me funny because I missed a social cue.

Writing is something I know. Writing is something I am comfortable with. Writing is something I feel I can control.

In writing I have time to pause, to reflect, to choose the right words. Writing slows me down, forces me to be self-critical – not, of course, that my written discourse is free of error and bullshit; but it's measurably more so than my spoken discourse. In effect, speaking merely voices my thoughts: writing shapes them.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Genderqueer, Or Internalized Misogyny?

[ETA: It's been brought to my attention that this post is founded on certain cissexist assumptions. It's true that I haven't engaged with my ingrained cissexism as much as I should, and I hope to work on that. Apologies for fucking up.]

The other night I dreamed I was at a church that had three bathrooms marked Men, Women, and Genderqueer. Entering the last, I found a glorious wonderland that was everything I could possibly want from a bathroom: talking Japanese supertoilet, hot tub, surround-sound entertainment system, etc.

It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that I trust my dreams. Dreams are your brain sorting through its junk drawer: most of it is pure junk, and occasionally something important turns up. I trust my reactions to my dreams. I've had sexual dreams about male friends which didn't disturb me at all, because I instinctively classified them as junk (hell, if everyone keeps calling him your boyfriend, your subconscious is eventually going to try it on for size, even if the notion is quite revolting). And it was a thoroughly PG-13 teenage dream about a female friend which unleashed the initial torrent of panicked self-reflection that is the first tender step on toward the closet door.

I wish I had access to the diary entry of the time so you could see it in its full, verbatim hilarity. “I'm not gay,” I wrote desperately (or something to that effect), “though it would make sense of a lot of things I like (hot girl-on-girl makeouts on Sugar Rush; scantily clad women in horror movies)...”

(I know! Bless, right?)

It took me a couple more years of self-torture – writing things like, “I'm not gay. I'm just homosexual”, which presumably made sense to me at the time – before I gave up trying to resist The Gay. (“Suck it, haters,” I at last wrote triumphantly: “I am a lesbian.”) My reluctance to accept The Genderqueer reminds me a lot of my reluctance to accept The Gay. I'm probably scrabbling for any available reason to deny something I pretty much know is true.

And yet, and yet...

I can't stop obsessively second-guessing myself. Just as I used to fear that my homosexuality was nothing more than intense fear and disgust at the penis, I now worry that my inclination toward genderfuckery is nothing more than internalized misogyny.

Like, when I reject the societal performance of femininity (shaving, makeup, skirts, long hair), is it because I consider the feminine-coded to be lesser?

If I accept the proposition that no true generalization can be made about women without resorting to tautology – if I accept that you don't have to be, have, or do anything to “qualify” as a woman, apart from identifying as a woman – why then am I not comfortably identifying as a woman?

When I'm enraged by someone in a store calling me “Missy” (THIS LITERALLY HAPPENED LAST WEEK, IN BERKELEY, IN 2012), am I enraged because it's fucking patronizing as shit, or because it genders me as female?

Does my general feeling that being gendered female is wrong mean that it's wrong for me, or that deep down I buy into the patriarchal equation female = wrong?

I feel increasingly disconnected from the pronoun she/her. When somebody refers to me as she/her, it feels as though they're talking about someone else. I like it when I get read as male or referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. I would love to ask people to use ey/em, but they probably wouldn't: even in out oh-so-progressive, wonderfully accepting and queer-friendly community, most people are terrible at respecting the pronouns of our openly genderqueer friends. And even if I could convince my friends to make the switch, how can I stop strangers from gendering me female?

We're so indoctrinated to categorize everyone into this M/F binary that people immersed in a supposedly queer-embracing environment won't even refer to someone as “they” after being explicitly asked to. And yet I pull on one thread and the whole gender thing comes apart in my hands. The existence of trans men and women is proof that it's possible to scrutinize and deconstruct your gender identity and reach a conclusion other than “Gender is bullshit”; but more and more that seems like the inevitable endpoint of my own inquiry.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Second Annual GCG Pop Culture Awards

Are canceled, because fuck you, entertainment industry. You're a bunch of craven, pusillanimous money-grubbers, recycling the same old garbage, reinforcing the same hegemonic narratives. You're a bunch of soulless suits who stifle genuine artistic expression in service of the bottom line. You suppress important voices and interesting stories so that you can maintain your profit-driven empire and, in so doing, perpetuate the kyriarchal status quo. You churn out meaningless sequel after crappy reboot, all empty fodder for the entertainment-industrial complex. Any flicker of art or soul or resistance is crushed under the jackboot of the massive money-machine that is big studios.

In your relentless pursuit of ultra-capitalism, moreover, you have proved yourself myopic and cowardly in the extreme. Once again you've utterly failed (ironically enough) to adapt to the demands of the consumer and the changing modes of production and distribution. Your opposition to the unstoppable forward march of technology reveals you to be a tantrum-throwing child, a bully, and an utter fool.

Inevitably, things are changing, and you're too busy screaming and throwing your toys at us consumers to take advantage of it. The real artists – the people with something to say, who are motivated by the Muses and not solely by Mammon – are adapting. They're taking their art and message straight to the people. They're utilizing the almighty power of the internet to raise funds and awareness for their projects, and to distribute their creations directly to the fans.

Unlike you, they're harnessing this awesome new power. Unlike you, they accept the change and work with it. You, entertainment industry, are King Canute, frantically flinging your last shreds of integrity into the sea in the vain hope that it might hold back the tide. You're shitting yourself in terror, and I for one welcome the day – surely imminent now – when the sea of change finally drowns you.

(And the best movie of 2011 was Attack the Block, and the best TV show of 2011 was Community, both of which have of course been totally sidelined by the aesthetically and morally bankrupt gatekeepers of the industry.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Super Bowl, Glee, And Pop-Culture Obligations

Few things on this earth interest me less than watching sports. It just does not engage me in the slightest. On the one hand, you have a bunch of (often overpaid) (almost invariably dude-type) humans chasing after a ball for 90 minutes or so; on the other hand, you have LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE IN EXISTENCE, and the former cannot possibly compete for my attention.

American football perhaps tops the list of Sports I Do Not Care About. Friends have gamely attempted to explain the rules to me, but such endeavors always put my brain in a jellified stupor quicker than Of Grammatology and a letter from the bank combined. Sports terminology is my personal soporific.

So you can understand why I anticipated my first Super Bowl with some trepidation. In fact, I looked on wistfully as a friend of mine offered a marvelous piece of counter-programming in the form of “Buffy Bowl”; but I just couldn't not participate in arguably the biggest cultural event in the US calendar.

As it turned out, I had a pretty excellent time. Beer, food, beer, friends, beer, yelling at commercials for being offensive kyriarchal clusterfucks, and beer are some of my favorite things, so I barely even noticed that there was a sport going on. It turns out there's enough of a surrounding circus that you can be reasonably entertained without paying the slightest attention to the game. (Also, it's apparently socially acceptable to be mortal as a newt by like 4pm on Super Bowl Sunday.)

I doubt I could summarize the goings-on better than Liss (except to reiterate: OMG NICKI MINAJ, be still my beating heart), nor get my feminist outrage on better than Fannie, so I won't try. What's interesting to me is my own feeling that, as a pop-culture connoisseur, I absolutely had to experience this event.

You see, this same weekend, I made official my breakup with Glee. I unliked it on Facebook and deleted the unwatched episodes that have been accumulating since October. For a couple of years, much as I would criticize it, Glee was essential viewing for me. The pop-culture buzz, the detailed analysis, the sense of witnessing a significant event in early-twenty-first-century television – it was irresistible. And yet, by the time season three started, the feeling of icy dread that accompanied each episode far outweighed the anticipation of conversation around it. The sheer awfulness of the show had, in my judgment, at last surpassed its cultural relevance.

The criteria we use for judging which pop-culture phenomena are worthy of our time and attention are subtle and strange. I absolutely believe that popular culture is worthy of close study and analysis: that this study can reveal all manner of truths about a given society – how it functions, what it values, what narratives it tells about itself and how these narratives perpetuate or challenge existing systems of domination and oppression. However, no one has the time or energy to be a consumer of all the popular culture from which we can learn these things. I know that everyone makes choices and compromises, but I still find myself second-guessing my own judgments about pop culture. Since I jumped ship on Glee, I understand that it's aired an episode dealing with gay teen sex, and has another forthcoming in which Brittana will actually, you know, do something. These are arguably watershed moments in pop-culture representations of homosexuality in the US, and maybe by bailing when I did I am missing out on something culturally important. I guess my question is:

To what extent are you obligated to engage with something you hate in order to study its sociocultural impact?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On Offense (Or: How I Learned To Be An Asshole)

Recently, I offended someone.

This is, shockingly enough, not a new experience for me, but it got me thinking: what do we mean when we talk about giving (or taking) offense? In thrashing it out with Joel (who, incidentally, is one of the best conversationalists I know, and if you aren't fortunate enough to know them in meat-life you should at least be reading their blog), I realized that there are really two rather different things conflated in the term “offended”.

On the one hand, I am easily offended – by the perpetuation, deliberate or unthinking, of the assorted kyriarchal -isms that comprise the dominant culture where I live.

On the other hand, I am almost impossible to offend – by personal insults, viciously sarcastic banter, slurs on my taste in entertainment, and the like.

See the difference? In the first case, my being offended is not actually the point. The point is that systemic injustice is being perpetuated; my taking offense is merely a manifestation of outrage at injustice, which is the real Bad Thing. The second case, however, turns on personal sensitivity: the Bad Thing here is my hurt feelings.

Collapsing all distinction between these two modes of being offended is problematic. It's what I did as an asshole young teen awash in unexamined privilege, dismissing all instances of people being offended as the hurt fee-fees of oversensitive whiners.

But completely separating the two modes of offense isn't too great either, and I think that's what I've been doing more recently. In my zeal to fight the power, I've been separating offendedness into wheat and tares: being offended at -isms is legitimate and righteous, but personal sensitivity constitutes an illegitimate form of offendedness. Of course, on a very basic level this separation makes no sense at all, because -isms hurt people. The two forms of offendedness are not identical, but they are intertwined.

At a formative age, I learned the hard way to not have hurt feelings. If you let your hurt feelings show, you gave the people trying to hurt you the satisfaction of a job well done, and encouraged them to keep at it. Better to repress those feelings. Better to hide in the library, fade into the background, turn invisible. Better to try not to have feelings at all, and if you must have them, have them in the novels you read, the diaries and poems and stories you write, the secret world in your head to which you retreat in every idle moment.

I was a child with a tenuous grasp on theory of mind as it was, so “hurt feelings are a weakness and a failing” was not the most helpful lesson for my preteen self to learn. As much as I've tried since then to unlearn everything I absorbed from the kids who made my life so hellish for that couple of years, those things are an insidious part of who I am. (I am worthless. Nobody could ever like me. Showing hurt feelings means they've won.) My brain knows that hurt feelings are a perfectly legitimate reaction to insults and sarcasm, but my gut still dismisses them as weakness, oversensitivity, invalid.

I am, my many past and present failures in this field notwithstanding, getting pretty practiced at battling the kyriarchy. Even though I don't always combat them when and how I should, I have at least gotten quite sensitive to the pervasive presence of -isms all around me.

But I am still not at all sensitive to individuals' hurt feelings. Many times, my personal insensitivity has caused offense, and sometimes I haven't even understood how. What I've realized from this latest incident is that I am drawing an artificial dualism that cannot be maintained. Systemic injustice can cause hurt feelings. Personal insensitivity can cause hurt feelings. Most of the time, it's kind of both.

I will never, I think, be a very sensitive person. I'm too callused by my childhood experiences to be hurt by a bit of mockery or rudeness; but I will fight my tendency to assume that everyone else is too. I will bear in mind that what looks to me like personal sensitivity might well be influenced by a systemic injustice that my privilege has blocked from my view. I will remind myself that, even though a certain joke or comment wouldn't be hurtful me, it might well hurt somebody else, and that doesn't mean that person is oversensitive or somehow in the wrong for feeling that way.

I will learn. I will get better at this.