So Long 2013! Make Sure the Door Hits You on the Way Out...

Last night I watched Disney movies and ate comfort food as an antidote to an afternoon spent fretting in a hospital waiting room. I know it’s unreasonable to expect a trick of an arbitrary calendar to make much of a difference in one’s life, but man, 2013 cannot end soon enough for this guy.

I’ve been reading all these year-end reviews. Some of them, like Lola Frost’s, are just beautiful. And it is a real honor for me to see, here and there, that I’ve been allowed to play a role, however small, in some people’s happiness. 2013 hasn’t been a year without highlights for me, for sure, but the low points have been rather overwhelming.

So here are the bullet points of 2013 for me, the good and bad in the order it came. I don’t know if there’s much point to this kind of exercise, but I’ve never had a year like this and maybe writing it down will help close it out right.  [Continue reading] »

10 Books That Changed My Life

Finally, a Facebook meme I give a crap about: 10 life-changing books you’ve read. I love books, and books have definitely changed my life, so that’s me all over. Except once I started really thinking about it, I realized that a mere list of 10 books wasn’t enough, that the books deserved an explanation of why they were on the list. Making it kinda long for a Facebook post.

1. How To Do Things With Words by JL Austin

2. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language by VN Volosinov

Language is important to me, as a writer and as a scholar, and Austin and Volosinov shaped the way I see language in a profound and lasting way. Both works look at language through the lens of power, and particularly at how we use language to exert our will – to effect change in other’s “ideologies” (to borrow Volosinov’s formulation, by which he means not just political stance but something more akin to worldview). Language – or signs in general – in Volosinov and Austin’s formulation, are not inert, simply referencing things, actions, and ideas in the world outside of language, but rather active forces in the constructing and reshaping of the world.  [Continue reading] »

So now twerking is cultural appropriation?

TWERK

TWERK (Photo credit: mikeywally)

In the wake of Miley Cyrus’ apparently disastrous performance on MTV’s 2013 Video Music Awards show, I’ve been seeing a lot of conversations (or more often, declarations) about twerking as a form of cultural appropriation. Twerking, according to what I’m reading, is intimately bound to black culture and when white women integrate it into their own dance performances, they are essentially stealing black culture — appropriating to themselves the street cred of more authentic dancers and musicians while avoiding, due to their racial privilege, the more negative sexual and cultural disempowerments that come with being a woman of color.

OK, that’s not entirely a horrible argument. It’s true that, for the most part, black women are judged more harshly for outward displays of sexuality, which reinforce racist stereotypes about black people being innately animalistic, uncivilized, unintelligent, and deserving of their lower social status. White women can often imitate tropes of black sexuality and “shake off” the essentializing that comes with them, presenting their sexualized performances as “just for fun”. The appropriation of black sexuality as a liberating force for white womanhood has a long history — we can see it at work, for instance, in Sophie Tucker’s early-career (c. 1910) blackface performances, in which she sang bawdy songs full of double entendre (and often single entendre) as an ersatz black woman, then shed off the implications of blackness by reclaiming her whiteness, peeling off a glove at the end of her act to reveal the light skin beneath.

Cultural appropriation can do real damage to communities. Blackface perpetuated and exaggerated black stereotypes and arguably contributed to the longevity of Jim Crow segregation (itself named after a popular blackface character). Representations by white women of hyper-sexualized black, Native American, Southeast Asian, and other minority women in our “she was asking for it” rape culture contribute to the high levels of sexualized violence faced by women of color, and the ease with which that violence is dismissed by law enforcement and by the wider mainstream population. (Remember the Duke case a few years ago? Within hours of the accusations filed by a black stripper against members of the Duke Lacrosse team, articles were appearing all over the media blaming her for leading the alleged perpetrators into rape — long before any evidence about the case was made public.) White popularization of black music styles in the mid-20th century left many of our greatest musical innovators penniless while their imitators went on to fame and fortune. The use of American Indian caricatures as sports team mascots continues to make it difficult for Native Americans to be taken seriously on issues ranging from the misallocation of tribal resources and theft of tribal lands to crushing unemployment rates and skyrocketing health issues. [Continue reading] »

Sex: It’s What’s for Dinner

This essay was originally published Dec 14, 2005, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Yam Yam Yam

Yam Yam Yam (Photo credit: cogdogblog)

The connection between eating and having sex is a fairly obvious one. Many of the words we use to describe sexual desire (hunger, voracious appetite) and sex acts themselves (eating out, munching), and even various body parts (my favorite: “the split knish”) refer to food—an obvious parallel given the importance of the mouth to both eating and sex. The connection is deeper than just slang, though—Edmund Leach noted in 1964 that the way we categorize the animals we eat and the way we categorize potential sex partners are parallel as well (at least in mid-century Britain): women and animals that live in the home (sisters, dogs) are off-limits for eating and/or sex; animals and women that live outside the domestic sphere (cattle and other animals that roam more or less freely, neighbors) are potential sex and marriage partners; and the truly exotic, those living entirely outside of the familiar world altogether (emu, Africans—from a British perspective) are neither food nor sex partners. Among the Arapesh and Adelam peoples studied by Margaret Mead (1935), a man could eat neither one’s own yams and pigs nor one’s own mother and sister, while:

Other people’s mothers
Other people’s sisters
Other people’s pigs
Other people’s yams which they have piled up
You may eat (Mead: 78).

With such a thin line between eating and “eating”, it seems unsurprising that some people would seek to combine the two more explicitly. Enter the cann-fetish (some explicit langauge, probably not worksafe)—cannibal fetishism (or cannibalism fetish). While many of us are familiar with the case of Armin Meiwes, the German man convicted recently of killing and eating a partner he met and coordinated the killing with over the Internet, Meiwes represents an extreme distortion of what is becoming a significant, if small, fetish community. For the most part, cann-fetishists stop short of actually eating or hurting anyone, rather endulging in a rather elaborate pretend-feast involving trussing the “meal” (generally a willing female, who is bound and whose various orifices will be poked, prodded, and filled with various trimmings and cooking implements), coating her (or, apparently far more rarely, him) with oil, butter, honey, and other basting substances, and “cooking” her in a make-believe oven.

[Continue reading] »

Human Terrain in Oaxaca

This essay was originally published Jun 5, 2009, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Mexico - troops in Calle de Revilladigego [i.e...

Mexico – troops in Calle de Revilladigego [i.e. Revillagigedo] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

For the past several years, my research has led me further and further into the world of counterinsurgency, military anthropology, human terrain, and other aspects of a military regime of knowledge. What concerns me, most of all, is the way that knowledge generated by social scientists can be used (and, if the past is any indication, will be used) to the disadvantage of the people on, from, and with whom anthropologists and other social scientists generate that knowledge.

This issue is hardly limited to anthropologists, though we have traditionally held a kind of loose monopoly on the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Nowadays, social scientists of every stripe traipse through the same terrain anthropologists once considered their own – and we, of course, have no problem returning the favor.

So when a friend forwarded me a story about geographers in Oaxaca mapping the “cultural terrain”, my disciplinary ears perked up. At issue are many of the same issues at play in debates over anthropologists’ and others’ involvement with HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan, although in many ways I find the situation I’m about to describe more frightening still, as it presages wars or conflicts as yet unfought – even counterinsurgencies to insurgencies yet to surge. [Continue reading] »

In the Flesh In the Museum: Representations of Indians in American Natural History Museums

This long essay was originally published Aug 8, 2006, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Ishi (1860-1916), last surviving member of the...

Ishi (1860-1916), last surviving member of the Yahi Indian tribe of California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There are Indians in the Museum of Natural History,” writes Danielle LaVaque-Manty (2000: 71) “And there aren‘t any other kinds of people.” The particular Museum of Natural History LaVaque-Manty is speaking of is the Ruthven Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan, but she could easily be describing any number of natural history museums throughout the United States—the American Museum of Natural history in New York City, the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the Phoebe Hearst Museum in Berkeley, the Field Museum in Chicago, and so on. Since their respective inceptions, mostly in the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, the American natural history museum has played a privileged role in the presentation and representation of American Indians* to an American public largely defined in ambiguous counterpoint to the savage mannequins held at bay behind the plate glass of the museum display. Whether cast as the noble Redman sadly disappearing before the onslaught of civilization or as the savage heathen to be forcibly converted or eliminated entirely, the removal or disappearance of American Indians was a necessary prerequisite to the occupation by white settlers of the American land. The museum became, oft times literally so, the last refuge of the “wild” Indian, at the same time that the possession of the Indian in the museum came to stand for exactly the possession of the land that made the “wild” Indian an anachronism, an echo of a time not before the settlers came, but of a time entirely removed from the history of America, a time when America was, indeed, an entirely different and new world.

This paper deals with the presentation of Indians in the American museum. Where LaVaque-Manty is speaking figuratively, though—of the representation of Indians through their artifacts, relics, and bones—this paper deals literally with the presentation of living Indians in American museum settings. The most famous of these awkward denizens of the museum was Ishi, “the last wild Indian” (Kroeber 1961) who, from 1911 until his death in 1916, lived and worked in the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology under the auspices of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. But Ishi was only the most famous of a number of Indians put on display in museums and museum-like setting. Kroeber’s teacher and mentor, Franz Boas, had exhibited a dozen Kwakiutl in the “ethnographic zoo” he supervised at the Columbian Exposition two decades before, and Kroeber himself had studied the Eskimos housed, at Boas’ request, in the American Museum of Natural History in from 1897-1898. Indians were displayed at dozens of World Fairs and Expositions, many times in exhibitions sponsored and curated by the Smithsonian.

This history must necessarily be situated in relationship to the wider context of museum display, a context which includes not just the living but also the dead and the (apparently) lifelike, such as the Indians of mannequins and dioramas, and which includes not just the museum but also the museum-like, the Expositions and traveling show which aim to sugar coat science with a veneer of entertainment and spectacle (or should that be to sugar-coat entertainment and spectacle with a veneer of science?). The final aim is towards grasping the essential objectification, the “waxworkification”, that lies at the heart of the ethnographic display and that captures the Indian as an object of display in the American museum. As a final examination of the ways in which this history continues to shape museum practices (both those of curators and of visitors), and ways in which this history can be, and is, subverted, I will briefly examine the recent exhibition/performance piece Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992) presented at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian (among other places), in which two Mexican artists performed the part of newly-discovered Indians while locked in a gilded cage on display in the Museum’s rotunda. This piece highlights some of the ambiguities and ambivalences inherited by the museum space, which Indians—suddenly empowered by the passage of the Indian Gaming Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, among other factors—must deal with in constructing their own self-representations. [Continue reading] »

Thoughts on the Mass Killing in Newtown, CT: A Rant in 11 Tweets

This is a series of posts I made on Twitter following the shooting in Newtown, CT yesterday. I could flesh them out, but I like them as is, sketchy and  impressionistic as they are. Edited simply to correct two typos and expand abbreviations.

For a Gun Control

Most of the responses to today’s mass shootings, from people I mostly respect, boil down to 1) gun control! 2) crazy people! 3) evil!

Some things I haven’t seen get much attention as factors in today’s killing: 1) masculinity, 2) poverty, 3) individualism, 4) market economics.

Masculinity 1: There’s a reason most mass killers are male. We value men who are visibly powerful and use violence to solve problems.

Masculinity 2: Build your identity around self-reliance, providing, and mastery of violence, and when something’s taken away, boom!

Individualism: We have become a nation where needing help is seen as weakness and dependency and offering help is an affront.

Poverty: There are very few resources for people who need help, and fewer still for identifying those in need: financial, mental, emotional, etc.

Market economics: The market provides, where there’s profit. Much greater motive to provide tools for violence than provide help.

Gun control is probably not the answer to this kind of tragedy, though it might make a dent in the ~10k US gun deaths annually.

Greater mental health resources are obviously needed, but not all mass killers are demonstrably crazy. Killing is often the only sign.

Not all mass killers are evil, either (except by tautology). Killing is a casual part of daily life in our society (e.g. industry, military).

In the end, mass killings are product of a society willing to trade tragedy for low taxes, the illusion of independence, and traditional gender roles.


Things I've Learned at BurlyCon 2011 (Final Edition)

[UPDATE: I cut a section which I want to post more in-depth on later. Miss Astrid's "State of Neo-Burlesque" raised some really important points bit I'm not sure I'm the right person to address them.]

Back home today after an intense, amazing, mind-expanding, soul-filling, heart-warming long weekend at BurlyCon 2011 in Seattle, and boy is my mind racing!  The first two days were great, but Saturday and Sunday were simply magical. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with so many amazing people, I can hardly make sense of it all.

But I’ll try.

1) Despite Neo-Burlesque’s feminist, all-sizes-welcome ideology, big-bodied burlesquers don’t always feel the love from their smaller sisters. They get booked as “token” plus-size performers — a fact brought home when the only two in a show find themselves performing back-to-back, over and over and over. They have to listen to thinner sisters express their own insecurities and body issues in phrases like “uck, I feel so fat today”. They don’t get booked as often as thinner dancers. And people feel licensed to talk about their bodies much more than they do with slimmer women. So here’s the deal: y’all gotta get some self-awareness up in ya. Pay attention to what you say, how you act, and who you book. Because big gals enrich this community. Anyone who witnessed Rubenesque Burlesque’s off-the-hook performance during peer review can attest to that.
[Continue reading] »

Things I’ve Learned at BurlyCon 2011 (Half-Time Edition)

For the past two days I’ve been attending BurlyCon 2011 in Seattle. BurlyCon is a non-performance burlesque invention, meaning that unlike most burlesque gatherings where the foocus is on stage performances, burlesque dancers gather here to take classes, socialize, and get feedback from their peers on troublesome routines.

Two days in and with two days left, I thought I’d share some quick observations.

1) In a culture that fetishizes youth, burlesque’s openness to older women provides powerful role models on aging gracefully or, as Jo Weldon put it, “DIS-gracefully”.

2) White people can still be horribly insensitive to performers of color. Fellow whiteys: urging a black performer to do a jungle girl act or a Josephine Baker act or anything else simply because she’s black is not ok. A routine should emerge from the totality of a dancer’s experience, not from the incidental fact of her skin color.

3) There is a higher percentage by linear foot of beautiful red hair in the Sea-Tac Doubletree right now than in any other population on Earth.

4) Well-intentioned feedback can be the greatest gift a performer can give another performer. It can also be terrifying. The peer review process here, where selected performers do their routine, then sit silently while a dozen or so peers comment, is almost perfect at emphasizing the gift and downplaying the terror.

5) I already knew this but it has come back to me in a million different ways the last two days: sexy is a state of mind, not of physical appearance.

That’s it for now – gotta focus on the next two days now!

Artist, speak up

David Wojnarowicz

Image via Wikipedia

In a recent post, I explained that artists have no particular insight into what their work means — and in fact are often profoundly mistaken — and so we should stop asking them so often to explain the meaning of their work. Though seemingly directed at artists, that post wasn’t about artists at all — it was about the rest of us and our unwillingness to take interpretive risks, our profoundly undemocratic desire to rest secure in the shadow of authority.

Talking about the meaning of your work as an artist is demeaning – it reduces the artist by forcing him or her to reduce the possibility of meaning in their work. But that doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t speak out, and speak loudly. There are lots of things artists should and even must speak about — the meaning of their work just isn’t one of them.

[Continue reading] »