Saturday, November 24, 2012

Your handkerchief
at noon in my laundry
makes me feel loved.


"We make ourselves a place apart
  Behind light words that tease and flout
But oh, the agitated heart
  Till someone finds us really out.

Tis pity if the case require
  (or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
  The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, for babes that play
  At hide + seek to God afar
So all who hide too well away
  Must speak and tell us where they are."

Letter to The Editor, Coming Up! March 1986

"I feel such sadness on reading Debbie Mikuteit's response to Randy Turoff's article on transgenderism.  It's clear that Mikuteit is too outraged to hear me, but maybe someone else will.  And her thinking is deep enough to deserve a response.

I am a lesbian psychotherapist who has had the privilege of speaking at length with some transsexuals in both personal and professional contexts.  Some seemed deeply disturbed to me and some did not.  Some seemed like kind, conscientious, trustworthy people and some did not.  What moved me was the profundity of the experience which can make a person take such a radical step.  The people I spoke with were typically no older than three or four years when they had the experience of "I am in the wrong kind of body."  The descriptions they give of these experiences have a unique tone to them: they seem to reflect more than the experience of conflict that any alert child must feel (especially girls) when facing the huge oppression of gender-prescriptive roles.  To the careful ear, they seem possibly to be speaking of an actual somatic experience that is preverbal and deeply, heartbreakingly, difficult to come to terms with.

I know a human being who was born with a penis, who at age 12 began to grow breasts.  This seemed to them to be a confirmation of the childhood conviction that they were, in fact, female.  For years this person wore bulky shirts--pockets on each side filled with pencils--so that the family doctor wouldn't notice again, wouldn't carry out the threatened surgery on the cherished breasts.  I know someone else who went to college--an absolutely unheard-of step in their family--because they figured that would be the only way to afford a transgender operation.    I know someone who was born with ambiguous (malformed) sex organs.  The parents decided on the gender their child should be and set about raising it that way; plastic surgery followed later; later still, in adulthood, this person went through months of agony to admit to themself that deep inside, they found the parents' decision wrong.

These people and others like them faced an isolation that was unremitting in childhood and adolescence.  Their courage to keep living, face the unthinkable, and find a path for themselves deserves validation.

The mysteries of chromosomes, hormones and genetics vs. conditioning is not simple or fully understood.  Is there any force besides patriarchal conditioning that may account for a person turning to transgender surgery?  For example, the hormonal differences that distinguish a male from a female fetus are detectable six weeks after conception.  What if the balance is upset while the child is in the womb?

If self-hatred and patriarchal conditioning were the only source of transgender motivation, surely the stories of transsexuals would show a monotonous, pathetic sameness and shallowness.  They do not.  I doubt the simple sickness-and-perversion theory of transgenderism for the same reason I don't accept it as a theory of homosexuality: it just doesn't fit.

Everything in our patriarchal situation enforces the idea, "There's only two kinds of people, male and female, and that's that."  The people who don't fit into those categories have been invisible and unnameable, like lesbians.  They are unique.  They have something to tell us.  Maybe at times (as in Turoff's article?) their case is presented as simpler than it really is.  Maybe concepts like "self-definition" make it sound too easy.  But if we listen, maybe some doors will open in our minds.  If we follow Mikuteit's advice--slap them in the face and tell them they're sick--then the doors slam shut and we all lose something precious."

Hang loose, go deep

Blessed art thou, source of all healing, wisdom + guidance.  I thank you for the mysterious lessons you send.  I trust they are for my highest good.  Please may I feel your presence, close-Sister in spirit, be here with me.


It is like I am on a long canyon trail.  The rock walls rise up steeply along either side of the gorge, and there is precious little sun.  The shadows are chilly + damp and omnipresent.  I have been told by the guide that the trail leads to a beautiful place of healing, but from where I am on the trail I cannot see that.  The trail is narrow + slippery and I have to pay close attention.  Shoney is there too and we are both scared and stretched to our limit.  Demons come and I have to concentrate on seeing through them.  Walking becomes very difficult and slippery and sometimes every step is a struggle.  We are cold.  We long for the sun.  Yet it is an adventure, and in its own way, strikingly beautiful.


"I was traumatized by my own fear.  I responded with such an outpouring of fear that afterwards, in similar situations, I could feel that younger self vibrating in terror and that would begin to trigger new fear, until I became conscious of what was happening.  Standing by the answering machine, hearing the doctor's message--"go get another mammogram--it might be nothing, but considering your history"--triggering the pounding heart, and then the blind rage of 4 years ago, 3 years ago, every high-tech test in that time period that said maybe, maybe not, we can't tell, but considering...more tests" till in utter disgust I stopped the intrusion of gleaming metal General Electric machines, with their unctuous insistence that they were helping me..."

...Most everyone who goes through cancer knows medical hell.  You sign off your personal, private body, and become a hospital #, a piece of flesh for the machines.  The long hallway in the intestines of the hospital where I went for chemo: people lined up in chairs with needles pumping poison into them, a hospital TV strategically anchored to the wall for their viewing pleasures...

I'm not going back to medical hell.  But then, what?  The question stretched before me in the early light, and I had to admit I was unprepared for it.  Much as I bitingly made fun of big daddy technological medicine, how could I go on without him!

Friday, November 16, 2012

"A Boy Named Sue" has a Sequel??

"A Boy Named Sue" was recorded at the height of Johnny Cash's career, during a live performance in front of inmates of San Quentin, the notorious prison perched on the edge of the San Francisco Bay.  Here's the famous video of his performance:


One of San Quentin's inmates was George Jackson, a world-famous Black Panther organizer whose memoir, Blood In My Eye, would become a bestseller, and eventually even inspire the title of a Ja Rule album(!).  In 1971, Jackson was killed by prison guards, leaving many unanswered questions.

Only a few miles away from the prison, in Sausalito's Richardson Bay, floated a houseboat occupied by an odd-looking songwriter named Shel Silverstein.  Silverstein wrote "A Boy Named Sue," and Johnny Cash's wife June loved it so much that she gave him the lyrics to sing at San Quentin.  Five years later, Bob Dylan would make the pilgrimage to Sausalito to visit Shel for some advice on lyrics that eventually became part of his album Blood on the Tracks.  Here's a video of Shel introducing his band, Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, on his houseboat:

Here's Shel, in his creaking-door, screeching voice, singing a duet with Johnny Cash of "Sue":

When I first saw this video, the first thing I noticed is how uneasy Johnny Cash is around Shel.  Especially unnerving is the moment when Shel yells, "Now you gonna DIE!"

Shel Silverstein had a lot in common with George Bataille, it turns out.  Except that he is a celebrated children's author and musician.  Shel had the same fascination with blood, with treachery, human degradation and betrayal.  Somehow, he adapted that fascination into songs, cartoons and poems that were enjoyed by even the most conservative parents.

For Shel, everything from murder to incest to prostitution and suicide (all favored topics in his poems and songs) were simply expressions of the "unquantifiable magic of art," to use his phrase.  The San Quentin prisoners were a kind of touchstone for the American public in the context of Shel's hilariously disturbing art.  The prisoners symbolized the "other side" of rational goodness, and were thus the perfect audience for Shel's Dionysian, violent, gender-bending song.
Most people have heard "A Boy Named Sue," but very few people have heard the sequel Shel wrote to the song, in the late 1970's, from the perspective of Sue's father.  He takes it much further...

Shel Silverstein terrified people, because of his ethnicity, because of his looks, his sounds, his words, and his views.  He wrote children's books, and cartoons for Playboy, and some of the most vile, disgusting, perverted songs I've ever heard.  Somehow he did all of these things at once.  In his biography by Lisa Rogak, she describes the following conversation between Shel and his friend, Playboy cartoonist Skip Williamson:

"When you're walking down the street did you ever see someone coming toward you, and you get the vibe that you better cross the street because you don't want to cross paths with that person?" asked Shel.
"Of course," said Williamson. 
Shel continued.  "I was coming out of a restaurant the other day and I look up and coming into the restaurant as I was leaving was this guy who just scared the shit out of me."  He paused for a few seconds, before he said, "Then I realized it was a mirror." (131)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hidden Kingdoms: Television and Taste

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. (Baldwin)

In everyday discussion, people often refer to “culture” and “media” as though they are entirely different entities.  While culture is seen as the realm of art, ideological traditions, and philosophy, media is taken to be an external, negative, even despotic force, used solely for the dissemination of information to mislead people.  In fact, media enunciates cultural trends, and must acknowledge the same philosophies and ethics as culture in order to retain its power.  Culture interprets media, and interprets media’s interpretations of itself, creating a feedback loop.  Pierre Bourdieu recognized the interconnectedness of media and cultural studies, and applied similar techniques to his analysis of each.  In his essay “The Aristocracy of Culture” he examines the cultural phenomenon of “taste,” and in “On Television” he described the relationship between society and television.  Both of these relationships are thought to exist apart from the scope of politics and the power dynamics of the public sphere, but in reality they are hidden channels of hegemony and control, Bourdieu contends, in part because they are not recognized as political.

There is a common myth, Bourdieu argues, that personal taste is “inborn” or genetic.  This is to him a cop-out, a way of writing off socially manufactured behaviors by relegating them to a field of discourse (genetics) that is not completely understood, or, at least, difficult for laypeople to discuss.  Nothing about taste is simple; it cannot be summed up in a short news story or magazine article, because both its social and genetic implications are multifaceted and mostly unexplored.  For this reason, perhaps, personal taste is one of the safest refuges of prejudice in popular discourse: while it is generally unacceptable to proclaim one’s “distaste” for Black Americans, for example, it is perfectly ordinary to denounce their cultural artifacts, such as rap music and certain clothing styles, on any number of levels (critics of Black art almost always prime their dismissals with the claim that they have nothing wrong with Black people themselves).  Bourdieu sets out on a path to show that cultural critiques are never simply about the manifest content of the work: “The ‘eye’ is a product of history reproduced by education. (Bourdieu, 324).”  A cultural critique, be it a film review or a book discussion group, is always a social interaction and an indicator of status in addition to being a “personal” opinion.

        How did the idea of the “unbiased” artistic critique come about? Most post-tribal societies can trace their history to a time when stratification was no secret – it was part of a sacred tradition and seen as a cultural necessity to hierarchically divide citizens.  An example of this is the Indian caste system, which can be traced back for many centuries.  Europe had an overabundance of societies of this kind.  Yet during the 18th and 19th centuries (around the same time as the emergence of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic), monarchies began to fall, and there was no longer a de jure division between the rich and the poor. 

Artistic fields began to deterritorialize and integrate along with sociopolitical ones: “Manet is an example: his painting upset the fundamental structure of all academic teaching of painting in the nineteenth century, the opposition between the contemporary and the traditional.  (Bourdieu, 329).”  But since there was no longer a political aristocracy, a cultural one began to emerge in order to keep some of the old ways (hence the title of Bourdieu’s essay, “The Aristocracy of Culture”).  Rather than birthright, one needed education in order to comprehend the “proper” cultural artifacts (the classics, for example). 

Bourdieu claims that these artifacts are written in certain “codes,” not for the purpose of aesthetic or intellectual benefit, but in order to prevent average people from comprehending them.  “A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded.  (Bourdieu, 323).”  Eventually, marginalized people could create codes of resistance, e.g. jazz music, in response to the aristocratic ethic.  These codes are not “lower” or less creative; they are simply different by necessity, as a consequence of the exclusive nature of the aristocratic codes.  This argument is often criticized for being a type of aesthetic relativism, because Bourdieu, like Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” is highlighting the cultural causes and effects of art rather than the manifest content or the beauty of the work itself.  In response to his critics, Bourdieu might say that the manifest content is not irrelevant, but should not be given a position of ultimate importance, since its code is not universally recognizable.  In a sense, this is quite similar to McLuhan’s “medium is the message” maxim: the medium (or the code, e.g. archaic or academic dialects) is inseparable from the message (or the content of the narrative, e.g. The Iliad).

Bourdieu's television, like Debord's "spectacle," is not primarily a mode of distribution of information or an artistic dialogue, but a social relationship between people.  "For example, the evening news on French TV brings together more people than all the French newspapers together, morning and evening editions included. (Bourdieu, 328)."  Like the potlatch of American Indian societies, it is a social field used for congregation and relaxation, as a respite from the day's work. The aspect of the social event of television-watching that makes it almost historically unprecedented and very different from the potlatch is its passive character: dialogue and analysis can only take place afterwards, as a (usually neglected) supplement to the social event.  This is neglected because, in many cases, explication and further examination of televised events are unnecessary, since the nature of television is, as Baudrillard put it, to embody “our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things.”  Television overcompensates in its quest to explain everything – like pornography, nothing is unshown, and nothing requires us to visualize or imagine anything beyond what is right in front of us.  Things may be left unknown, in a cliffhanger at the end of a soap opera, for example, but all those questions will be resolved if we tune in next week, or after watching the advertisements.

Television, while it is a massive gathering, is decidedly apolitical in most cases (with some exceptions, such as Venezuelan and Cuban national television stations). Bourdieu's dispute with the social effect of television is analogous to Benjamin's dispute with the aestheticization of politics and Debord's dispute with the spectacle: it mesmerizes its subjects and, in the process, neutralizes critical dialogue.  It makes sense, in a way, that political action en masse is the one thing that television must avoid at all costs, because this could jeopardize the profit motive, the cornerstone of the entire endeavor.  "[Television's] homogenization… smoothes over things, brings them into line, and depoliticizes them.  (Bourdieu, 328)." This is socially necessary, from the perspective of the current order of things: it takes a lot of work to make people apolitical.  This is why people must be exposed to it constantly, for many hours a day, and from a very young age in order for it to do its duty (a 1990 study found that children watch about 25 hours of television per week[1]).  The first stage of indoctrination is visual (flickering, flashing lights and bright colors have a hypnotic effect, especially on young children in their most malleable stages) and the second stage is ideological (consumerism, good work ethic, and wealth are shown as the ultimate yardsticks of one's worth). 

Throughout both essays, Bourdieu uses a specific method of sociological investigation that emerged from the structuralist tradition.  “What [men and women] can or cannot do is largely determined by the structure in which they are placed and the positions they occupy within that structure.  (Bourdieu, 334).”  The placing of individuals within structures (rather than focusing on ‘great’ or important individuals who affect a universal historical narrative) is the common thread that holds together the analyses of two seemingly unrelated phenomena, taste and television.  Yet this should not be interpreted as cynicism: Bourdieu is more willing than most professionals to appeal to idealistic visions of the future.  His visions, tellingly, do not depict better, more conscientious, or more moral individuals, but structures and fields that operate more democratically than the ones we have at the moment.  “If sociologists always disturb things,” he says, “it is because they force us to make conscious things we’d rather leave unconscious.  (Bourdieu, 333).”  As a historical figure, his goal is similar to Freud’s: to unveil the embarrassing aspects of society, and to make the invisible visible so that it can be modified to our satisfaction.

[1] Miller, Daphne, M.D. (1999). “Television’s Effect on Kids: It Can Be Harmful” [Electronic Version].  

Excerpts from the Illustrated Tao Te Ching

In ancient times, the leaders were as subtle as sorcerers.

No one knew what they were about to do.

How can we describe them to you?

They were like soldiers about to cross a cold river,
hesitant, watchful and uncertain.

They were cautious like people who know
there is danger.

They were over-polite, like practised guests.

They gave way like ice, melting.

They were simple like uncarved wood

            They were empty like deserted valleys

They were muddy like unreflecting water.

The mud will settle and it is hard to wait for it

But if you can, then you can act.

If you follow the Tao without pretension

                                    you will never burn yourself out

Learn to yield and be soft

If you want to survive

            Learn to bow

And you will stand in your full height

Learn to empty yourself

                                                and be filled by the Tao

            the way a valley empties itself into a river

            Use up all you are

And then you can be made new

            Learn to have nothing

And you will have everything

Sages always act like this

and are Children of the Tao

Never trying to impress, their being shines forth

Never saying ‘this is it,’ people see what the truth is

Never boasting, they leave the space they can be valued in

And never claiming to be who they are, people can see them

And since they never argue, no one argues with them either

So the ancient ones say
                        ‘Bend, and you will rule’

Is this a lie?  You’ll find it is true

Be true to yourself, and all will go well with you

What is going to be diminished

Must first be allowed to inflate

Whatever you want to weaken

Must first be convinced of its strength

What you want to overcome

You must first of all submit to

What you want to take over

You must first of all give to

This is called discerning

You see, what is yielding and weak

Overcomes what is hard and strong

And just as a fish can’t be seen

When he stays down in the deep

don’t show your power to anyone!

                                                                        Every living thing
                                    Comes from the Mother of Us All:

                                    If we can understand the Mother
                                    Then we can understand her children

And if we know ourselves as children

We can see the source is Her

And well, if your body dies

there’s nothing to be frightened about

If you keep your mouth shut

And stay inside

Then you’ll live a long time

If you blurt out

What you think to everyone

Then you won’t last long

Value littleness.  This is wisdom.

To bend like a reed

                                    in the wind

            that is real strength

Use your mind, but stay close to the light

And it will lengthen its glow
                                                right through your life.