Monday, September 28, 2009

Funny People

As I mentioned in my post last night, I went and saw Funny People Sunday. The film by Judd Apatow stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen. It was my first experience of a Judd Apatow film and of an Adam Sandler film. According to the write up at IMDb, Apatow's goal was "making a very serious movie with twice as many jokes" as his previous comedy films. Well, if there were twice as many jokes as his previous efforts then they must have been very unfunny indeed and if this was meant as a serious film, a drama of some sort, well it didn't work with me either. As I said in my post on Sunday night, the film made me "feel more like an anthropologist or sociologist on a field trip. I also felt very queer, very alien and very naive all in one hit."

As a gay man, what struck me almost immediately watching this film was the, to me, very over the top aggressively homoerotic language that the male characters use towards each other. And lets face it this is a very homosocially male film. Women don't get that much of a look-in in the story but I'll come back to that.

The film is saturated with male characters - three of whom share an apartment in LA, another one of whom is the Sandler character, a most successful and disgustingly rich comedian who has been diagnosed with a life threatening disease, and a number of other minor characters - and just about all of them are portrayed as relentlessly competitive and describe this mutual rivalry in the most explicitly sexual, homosexual, terms. Not only Eve Sedgwick but also Carol Delaney and a suite of other anthropologists would have a field day with this film.

I kept wondering do straight United States men really talk to each other in this way, do they really describe their interactions in such sexual terms? All the male protagonists were referring to each other as generally fucking each other in the arse, sometimes in the mouth. In one exchange between the characters Ira and Leo, when Leo finds out that Ira had done the dirty on him, Leo says words to the effect of 'shall I put glasses on my ass so it looks like I'm blowing you when you're fucking me?'

Does this film, to all intents and purposes a 'serious' film, portray a reality of heterosexual male interactions in the US? Do straight USan guys usually and explicitly define their interactions as aggressively homosexual? Or maybe it's meant to be LA men or maybe a subset of Hollywood men, comedians and wannabe comedians. But then all the way through the film the dominant representation of sex and sexuality, at least as these characters understand it, is in terms of competition, rivalry, domination, each of the other.

Women in this configuration have little or no role to play. When Sanders' character, George, takes young Ira to his mansion with two women, George's whole intent is to fuck not one but both of these women not for any quality pertaining to the women but to demonstrate to Ira just how much power, how on top George actually is. This same attitude comes across at the local comedy club where Ira and other aspiring comics do stand up ( and which is where Ira and George meet). Before Ira is about to go on, the previous act comes off stage after wowing his audience (in a performance again with amazingly explicit and homoerotic sexual references) and passing Ira says "I fucked them!" as a statement of triumph. Once again, sex as control as domination. He's on top, he's successfully fucked his audience leaving them screaming for more. Implicit in his declaration, too, is "see if you can go better than that!" It's a rivalry thing, which man is on top of everyone.

Of course the man who is on top is George, the filthy rich successful comedian and actor. He lives in a palace by the sea served by a posse of Hispanic servants, with whom he has very little real connection as people. The film highlights this lack of connection in many ways but I'm not certain why. Granted George is a thoroughly atomised and disconnected being but it's not clear whether this is due to class or ethnicity with his staff or even if it really matters in the end. Because the whole gist is that George lives in a household full of people but none of them are on his level, none are his match. He can of course achieve a sort of camaraderie with some of his male gardeners, complimenting them on their work as a sign of their sexual prowess, a prowess almost as good as George's. But for the older and possibly only female staff member, George can barely achieve any sort of connection. She's only a woman and much older and past his sexual interest and so there is no connection possible. He speaks to her as if she might be a piece of furniture.

I kept wondering about these representations of male male interaction and male female interaction. I'm not certain what you'd term it. If this film is meant as an accurate depiction of even one subset of life in the US then perhaps I can see why some of the culture wars, especially around homosexuality, are such a dominant feature of life in the US today. In this film it appears that the dominant cultural perception of sexuality between and amongst men is as a means of aggression, of rivalry, of mastery, of violence against each other. Actually I think such a perception is more widespread than a mere US thing - it clearly animates the Levitical proscriptions of anal sex between men and the accounts of attempted rape and rape in the Sodom and Gibeah stories. In a sense, sex between men is always configured as an act of rape. Love between men is just not possible.

The irony is, of course, that George, on learning that he might only have a few months to live, embarks on a classic male male romance when he sweeps up Ira, the hapless 'loser' [1] wannabe comedian, into his life. Probably the closest we come to any sort of intimacy in this film is when George insists on Ira sitting by his bed to talk with him as he goes to sleep. He can do so because he has hired Ira and so as his employer has full rights over him anyway (again a very ancient pattern especially for male householders). And so in some strange fumbling way a kind of intimacy is grasped at.

Intimacy is the one thing lacking in this film. None of the characters live in any sort of intimate relationship. Given too that all of the characters are meant to be straight, the portrait of heterosexuality that emerges is especially disturbing. Most of George's encounters with women are predatory. There is the great love of his life, Laura, but in their whole interaction they might as well be aliens from different worlds. Laura is married and a mother and while they might for a while revive old romanticisms, it is clear that the expectations are totally different. Furthermore, there is Clark, Laura's husband. Again there is a rivalry between men, this time as to who will provide the household for Laura and her children, whose life will Laura adorn. Intimacy is not really a part of the equation here not to mention any sort of relationship, erotic or otherwise, of respect between men and women.

The most curious aspect of the film's sexual world was the sub-plot of sex as consumption as befits late capitalist society. In this configuration women and men, have some kind of parity. [2]. The young aspiring comedian, Daisy, represents this world along with Ira's flatmate, Mark, who is curiously the softest of all the male characters in the film (although still extremely competitive and predatory). Ira is angry to discover that Mark and Daisy have had sex even though Ira had wanted to go an a date with Daisy. Mark had warned Ira that he only had a set time limit after which Mark would make his move on Daisy. George's demands mean that Ira never gets to have that date and then discovers that Mark and Daisy have had sex. However, in an interesting twist Daisy asserts her own right as a sexual consumer, against Ira's hurt, to decide to have sex with Mark. So in this case it's not a matter of Mark configured as predator on Daisy but a mutual act of consumption. It might well be the case that Ira and Mark are playing keeping up with the Joneses in their desire for Daisy but Daisy also sees Mark as a worthwhile object of consumption she must have too. So a kind of male-female mutuality occurs and female agency to boot.

However the film ends with Ira now the up and coming star and so he gets his girl, Daisy. It's almost like the stock happy ending. But is this mutual consumption or is Daisy now swept away with Ira's new found topness, he having now been imbued with George's aura? For George and Ira have also changed their roles with each other. George now writes material for Ira, not because he has to but because he wants to. Their relationship has advanced to a stage of the old homo-erotic ideal of love between older and younger that the whole film, at the same time, so vigorously disavows. In the homo-erotic ideal, the older and younger achieve a kind of parity, the older helping and supporting the younger so that the younger can blossom. Something of that happens here. But there is no real eros between Ira and George unless Ira's rebellion against George and subsequent sacking takes the place of erotic union. So once again male relationships are configured as struggle, rivalry and domination. The only real chance for intimacy between men is in conflict and struggle. As for intimacy between men and women, well, in this world it just doesn't exist at all, except by a process of capitalist mutual consumption. No wonder Irigaray argues that heterosexuality does not exist, has yet to be developed.

I've said that many aspects of the film's depiction of male male relationships and male interactions with women can apply across the board to a range of cultures and eras but I still wonder whether the explicitness of such things as the homo-aggressive-erotic are a feature of aspects of US society and thus account for the especially charged nature of socio-cultural debates concerning homosexuality and gender in that country. I'm open to be guided by USan folks on that point.

But I think the film does expose some of the contradictions and failures of what I might term heteronormativity in deference to Irigaray. If I could have been able to care for these people then I might have felt sadness for them. Instead I felt like a complete outsider, utterly disengaged, which left me with a more inchoate and disturbed sadness, not for anyone in particular, perhaps for all of us who have to deal with this very twisted and destructive heteronormative order.

[1] I regard 'loser' as an especially pernicious capitlaist derogatory term.

[2] I think in late capitalsim the implicit monogendered framework has shifted from the older model of (male) householder to a somewhat more inclusive one of consumer. It draws on the older (male) householder model but is somewhat more inclusive in that women and others can be counted as consumers and can thus play as well ,on a relatively equal basis, so long as they maintain their status as consumers.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sorry for the silence lately

This is just a brief note to say that life has been busy of late and I also seem to have had a bit of the dreaded writer's block. But I am feeling the call to get back to writing and I have a chapter to finish for an anthology which should get me in the mode too. I will probably write next about the film Funny People which I saw today and one I didn't think was all that funny or all that tragic. It was a film that made me feel more like an anthropologist or sociologist on a field trip. I also felt very queer, very alien and very naive all in one hit. It's a bit late tonight to go into it all now but probably on the morrow I'll sit down and reflect upon the, to me, very weird sexuality and gender politics in that film. Were they all that weird or am I really just a very strange and silly old romantic?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

My life lately

I know a lot of people who read this blog are on Facebook and keep up with my doings via my updates there but there are some who have yet to get into the social networking sites and so might be wondering, especially given the craziness of my Saturday night post just what's been happening. So here's a bit of a personal update.

Early in August I began some tutoring work at University of Qld, well the tutorials began then but there had been some work to do before the tutes plus I was also to give two lectures in the same course so I also set down the basics for the lectures as I knew I was to be doing a second job in August as well.

That second job is with the Griffith University branch of the NTEU. As with most universities collective bargaining is underway at Griffith. When I say underway, management has been stalling for a long time. At UQ, management has been downright obstructionist. Anyway, so to break the impasse, we've moved to industrial action. It seems that management is quite happy to sit on its backsides wasting time for months on end. The only way to get them to budge is by the members taking action.

So I was asked to come back to Griffith NTEU branch to work with the full time organiser assisting her mobilising the troops for action. Under the current industrial relations system, for any industrial action to be considered 'protected', i.e. the bosses can't sue the pants off you or worse for doing it, it has to meet certain conditions. First off a secret ballot of memebrs must be held, supervised by the Australian Electoral Commission. It's a postal ballot and on the ballot are listed a variety of possible actions, including stoppages of various durations. Members vote yes or no to each and only those actions that get a majority of votes become part of the allowable actions for members to then take after voting on them at meetings. There's also a time limit after the secret ballot results have been declared for being able to take the action otherwise the Union has to go back to secret ballot again.

If all that sounds confused then consider that I have simplified drastically for brevity's sake. Given the multi-campus nature of Griffith, campuses that are spread over three cities, with the largest probably now the Gold Coast one, the Griffith organiser has her work cut out. So I was put on initially to help make sure members got their votes in during the secret ballot. Once that was completed it as decided to keep me on in the lead up to a 24 hr stoppage that's happening next Wednesday. There's quite a bit of running around involved for us organisers. There's doorknocking, and postering and pamphletting and lots of stuff like that. I've been doing a lot of that over the last couple of days at the Nathan campus and tomorrow we spend a day at the Gold Coast campus doing some more.

I'm working part time with the NTEU and also doing the tutoring work at UQ, which has been very demanding not least because students had to submit their first essay. The tutes didn't start until week 3 and the essay was due in shortly after that. The students have not had a chance to connect up with their tutors and, of course, the university is being stingy with tutorials so we have large tutorials which can be quite unwieldy and with students having to do presentations doesn't give a lot of time to cover anything else. So I've been caught up with marking and becasue I felt that the students have not had the opportunity for much guidance and as it's an intro course I have been very lenient in my marking. Leniency for me is offering the students a chance to resubmit. That also means that I meet with them for a one on one session about what's required for a proper essay. So all of which means that I've been very busy with students and marking to boot.

And on top of that, I'm convenor of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Action Group that's affiliated with Qld Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC) which is the successor body to the old Qld AIDS Council. Myself and several others were booked into a two day Digital Stories workshop at the State Library, our registration being paid for by QAHC. And as well there's my involvement with St Mary's. There was a parish meeting a couple of weeks back that I went to and I also seem to have become the regular server for the Sunday evening Mass. The upshot of all this is that over the last three weeks I have not had a weekend of any sort. I got a day off last week as a result of a medical emergency which was really a medical melodrama in a classic case of illness as metaphor. I finished the marking last weekend except for a pile of tute presentations which I was to have marked on Sunday except for a very odd after effect of the watery weekend Full Moon in Pisces that had had me waxing rhapsodic and manically quoting Leonard Cohen in my post on Saturday night.

Around 4.30am our toilet cistern here at home decided to die and began pouring water out in a cascade that began to flood our unit and the one downstairs. The bathroom was turned into a small lake both my flatmate and I were woken by the noise. He got to the toilet before I did and was able to turn off the tap into the cistern. But the carpet down that end of the hall was sopping wet. I mopped out the bathroom grateful that a large a mount of water had been sequestered there if not for that it would have spread much further into the rest of the unit , possibly interacting with the electricals in my bedroom and my flatmate's study. As it was the moisture continued to spread through the carpet including into the bedrooms and said studyand I had to get emergency carpet people in. So Sunday afternoon the unit was a mess with carpet being ripped up and these huge driers installed to dry out the carpet and floors. A lot of books in the study had to be moved and my flatmate had then to move some of the furniture so that the carpet guys could get the driers in place.

Because I'm working down the Gold Coast tomorrow, I also got a day at home today but the strike day is also the deadline for a lecturing job in Theology at University of Newcastle so I've spent the greater part of the day working on my application. I hate job applications. I did so many in 2003-05 I swear it made go quite mad. Certainly that load compounded and no doubt contributed to the depression I struggled with in 2004 and that probably lasted into 2006. But this was one was not so bad, eight selection criteria to respond to. I've seen much worse - jobs at UQ are probably the worst. I applied for a lecturing job there back in 2006 with about 16-18 of the things, mostly repetitive to boot. Totally crazy and frustrating, demoralising even. A classic case of micro-management gone completely awry.

The deadline for the Newcastle job is next Wednesday, which is also strike day. But I have a few things on over the weekend including catching up with my dear friend who I haven't seen for a month. It also seems that our society, while completely discounting the private realm no doubt because it's configured as feminine, maternal, uxorial, at the same time treats workers as if they have someone in that domestic drudge role doing for them at home. No, not treats but expects that to be so. I don't have such a drudge/slave and I have some chores to do as well, the usual washing and grocery shopping and so forth.

So that's a bit of my life of late and hence my blog posts have been infrequent and sometimes quite random especially when the Full Moon is involved. My union work finishes with the strike next week and I have no major marking to do until November. So I should have a bit more time for the blog although I also have a bit writing on my plate to attend to as well. Nevertheless I hope posts will become more frequent and less manic soon.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Back to Bible

I almost deleted my last post but, too late, through the magic of time zone differences, it's out there now living it's own life. I don't have the heart to kill it now. Some Father's Day mercy perhaps? Then I found this at Ben Byerly's blog.

What's in Your Bible? Find out at

At last, an attempt to show just how complex this thing called Bible really is. It's pretty good but doesn't allow for the changes that occur over time. The Epistle to the Laodiceans, for example, seems to have been a fairly common part of the medieval Latin Bible until the 15th century when doubts of its authenticity caused it to be shunted to an appendix where it remains to this day. But it does give a good account of how the standard English language Protestant (i.e. sans 'Apocrypha') Bible is a pretty modern invention. It also doesn't allow for the text varieties within the traditions. The Greek Bible has variant forms of Joshua, Judges, Daniel, Tobit. And they've even included Samaritans. I know it's only five books for them but the Samaritan Torah is one of the three ancient text types for the Torah (i.e. there aint no single original version).

So it's a start. All we have to do now is get it into Intro Bible courses so people learn that if God was speaking this 'Word' she had lots of stenographers hearing the words in different ways. So there can't be a literal truth. Thank God for that, I reckon.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

It's a Full Moon night and I find maybe I AM a Theologian after all

And that Full Moon trines my watery Cancerian Sun form watery Pisces so I'm in a strange mood tonight after a busy day of meetings and marking. It's got me in a Leonard Cohen mood for some reason and I've been posting Leonard Cohen covers on Facebook. I say all this for no special reason except perhaps to excuse a rather rambling post that I can't help but feel might end with Leonard Cohen. But if so, why not?

Anyway I notice around some of the blogosphere there's been some discussion about the role of theology and how it fits vis a vis religious studies and most impellingly biblical studies. Part of it seems to come out of an op ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Kurt Noll, "The Ethics of being a Theologian". I'm not going to talk about this piece mainly because I haven't yet read it in full but rather in bits and pieces in the ensuing conversations. But if you're interested in a bit of it here he concludes thus:

Am I trying to imply that theology is without value? Certainly not. I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.I now realize how I should have answered the philosopher who asked whether I had trouble defending religion to my students: "I explain complex religious doctrines to undergraduates every time I enter a classroom, and I've never had difficulty doing so. But I tell my students that my role is to explain and evaluate, never defend, religious belief and practice."
So, anyway, over at the Dunedin School, Deane Galbraith wrote an appreciative piece in which he largely backed Noll's arguments and binaries and also dissed astrology to boot, playing that old astronomy = 'true and real' binary over and against astrology. Here's a bit more of what Deane had to say:

Theology is a means to use data to defend existing presuppositions. By contrast, in biblical and religious studies, at best, our ideologies are overt. They’re still there, of course, as “the trendy postmodern” thinkers highlighted. Yet a fundamental difference exists in that so many more of the presuppositions of religious and biblical studies are themselves open to challenge and reformulation. It’s not enough to just point the finger and say, “You’ve got presuppositions too!” Well, d’uh. Of course we do. Instead, the salient question is this: “What kind and how many presuppositions aren’t you willing to challenge?” Sure, in practice, our willingness to change our presuppositions and paradigms might be slow. But only in theology are too many such changes prevented on a priori grounds, and only in theology is this defence of so much of what is already believed held up as a virtue.
The difference between serving your ideology and being open to data is always one of degree. But it is this very relative difference which makes the distinction between theology and academic studies so fundamental.

Personally, I think Noll's piece is a bit of disciplinary turf war boundary drawing to claim a respectable place in the respectable domains of academe as opposed to those off with the pixies theologians who should really go back to the cloisters where they belong. Mind you my own alma mater is graced with a delightful circuit of cloisters so I'm not certain how tightly fixed the boundaries of academe really are as opposed to the jiggery pokery/(popery?) realms of cloister/church/temple.

Anyhoo, Deane's piece brought an immediate response from Roland Boer:

On another line – ‘theologians practice and defend religion’. In short, theology is apologetics, a rearguard action. Oh come on, Noll (via Deano)! Why is it assumed that theologians must be believers? We don’t expect a teacher of French to be French, or a student of ancient Greece to believe in the Greek gods, or even an art critic to be an artist. So why does a theologian need to be a believer (in God I mean)?

Roland's comment generated quite a discussion thread, which you can check out. Roland then put up a post, Theists and Atheists and Theology, or Pinning Me Down. I'll quote some of the best bits below:

In contrast to the many who still assume that theism and theology are the best of friends, I would suggest that it is perfectly consistent to practice theology and not believe in a god. Theology is actually a system of thought, with its distinct terminology, modes of argument and lively debate that can operate quite well without any external reference point. In a sister discipline to theology – biblical criticism – this is a viable way to carry on one’s work. In fact, for well over a century, biblical criticism has operated with the assumption that one does not include the gods as causes of history or as those responsible for the production of the biblical texts (in their writing, gathering and ordering into a canon). At most, the multiple personalities of God are actually characters in the story, as with any other literature. The assumption that you need to believe in order to be interested in the Bible would have to be one of the strangest making the rounds today, shared by believers and non-believers. We don’t expect an art critic to be an artist, a literary critic to be a novelist or a poet, a student of classical Greece to be a believer in Apollo or Venus, or a lecturer in French to be a French national.

If this is possible with biblical criticism, then why not with theology? Let me put it this way: biblical criticism is finally shedding the misleading attachment to intention. For too long it was assumed that the holy grail of interpretation was the intention of the author. So when scholars and readers came to the Gospels, the aim was to find what Jesus himself intended – and thereby what God intended through these sayings. Biblical critics, or at least many of them, have realized that intention is one small part of interpretation. Apart from the impossibility of finding out what the author(s) might have intended, or indeed accounting for the role of the subconscious in the production of texts, the search for intention relies on a relatively recent, bourgeois assumption, namely that thoughts are the possession of an individual mind, the private property of an owner who is thereby the arbiter of meaning. However, even if we allow some space for intention (problematic as that might be), it needs to take its place beside many other factors, such as unconscious and unintended meaning, the sense provided by readers, the roles of social norms and cultural expectations, the intrusive roles of history and economics, the conflicting ideological voices in a text, or indeed the objective sense of the words on a page, the nature of the text itself and how it is structured.

So also with theology: once we move past the assumption that religious belief is the core or perhaps the overarching unity of theology and realize that it is one part and by no means a necessary one, then theology shows all its other colors. It deals with nature and the environment (creation), with the human condition (anthropology), why the world is the way it is (harmatology), the problem of suffering, the nature of the human subject (via Christology), the nature of history, hopes for the future, how human beings might live together (ecclesiology), and the nature of mythology (the central stories with which theology deals). Do not get me wrong, for I do not wish to ban belief in God. But there should be plenty of room for theologians who do and do not believe in God. After all, the discipline has a wealth of experience discussing and debating crucial issues central to human existence. It would be silly to discard, demonise or cage it in.
Roland's piece generated further conversation with Missives from Marx which lead to a final piece from Roland:

So, a brief response from me to Miss Marx: I think there's a way forward on this issue and it might be as follows. Instead of defining each discipline by a core idea, I prefer to think of disciplines as intersections of various lines. So theology is isn't defined by explaining belief in muscled fairies, but by intersections of the sorts of things I mentioned - history, environment, human condition, hope, social questions, mythology etc. Or as you put it, ontology, anthropology, existentialism, and social philosophy. You could do similar exercises with each of these disciplines or approaches and come up with similar results. I reckon you could do the same with literature, architecture or even physics.

I have to agree here. Personally I find the boundaries between theology, literary studies, politics, queer theory, sexuality studies, feminist theory, biblical studies, sociology, religious studies, history, to name a few, thoroughly porous. And acknowledging Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Buddhology must be added to the equation too. And any religious studies worth its salt must take account of magic, ritual, astrology, numerology, divination, I Ching, theosophy, Kabbalah, Tantra. Certainly any biblical studies that wants to exclude astrology and numerology from the purview of the biblical is cutting off its nose to spite its face (and might be unconsciously sustaining older theological agendas to boot). The biblical worlds are worlds that intersect thoroughly with astrology and numerology too. Of course I can't claim to know exactly what the astrology was but it clearly has some relationship with the Western astrological tradition which goes back to the turn of the era.

I am not an atheist. I am a theist standing in Christian traditions, which themselves represent a compromise between ancient polytheisms and ancient monotheisms. The religious world of the Old Testament is not normatively monotheist and YHWH is not God the Father as we in the West have somehow come to believe in a latter day unconscious modalism. (That's something I've come to realise in the last few years.) The Christian Godhead is not distinct from the God/s of Judaism/s and is probably closest to the God as revealed in the Tree Of Life of Kabbalah. The Christian Godhead is also not distinct from the God(head) of Islam. All three traditions worship the One (in the Many) of the ancient Middle East and hence I think there is no substantial difference vis a vis the God who commissioned Zarathustra and who speaks in the Avesta. Is that why Matthew portrays Magi journeying to pay homage to the infant Jesus? Or is it because Jesus is born in the cusp of the new Great Year so he truly was born at the ending of the age, an ending that all the ancients could recognise, especially the Magi who were well versed in the ways of astrology and thus understood better than most the timing of Jesus epiphany? It draws on utopian thought, ancient utopian thought yes. But be that as it may, it casts a shadow in which we still stand.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't like boundary demarcations least of all those that attempt such demarcations based on the politics of Western rationality. Sure there are differences between religious studies scholars, biblical scholars, theologians but there are also overlaps. Most religious studies scholars I've known are attempting more than just an empirical study of their chosen religious field. In one way or another they are doing what might be termed theology or perhaps grappling with ultimate questions. Likewise most biblical scholars I know come with some kind of religious concern at least initially. I did - it was and it remains to work to end the religious roots of homophobia in biblically based religions. It is an advocacy role, a role of engaged scholarship and my presupposition that homophobia is bad is not one I'm likely to question. I don't have to be a believer to do that and there have been times when I have let go of faith although I think it was more a process of what Meister Eckhart termed 'praying God to rid me of God' and God heard my prayer and so I have even more reason to pray. So probably I am a theologian.

I've rambled on too much and really gotten nowhere so with the mention of prayer I shall end with one courtesy of Leonard Cohen in honour of the full moon.

"If It Be Your Will"

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.

I love that image of rags of light. And sorry, Roland, but I think I completely muddled up a perfectly good interblog conversation. I'll blame it on the full moon.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Some more on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

In my last post I stated that I was reading Eve Kosofky Sedgwick's Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003). I'm sad to say that I've now finished it. Sad because she died earlier this year. Sad, because I so enjoyed reading it and I know that she won't be writing again, won't be developing so many of the interesting insights that fill this book. Sad, because her remarkable voice is now silent in this world.

As with all her work, this book is one that works slowly on the mind, at least I find that to be so anyway. Her prose is superb and richly textured with a deep poetic quality and so her work rewards with re-reading. So although I am sad to have finished it, I also know that I will be re-reading as well as following up many of her ideas. Of particular importance for this volume is the work of Silvan Tomkins, psychologist and developer of affect theory. As I'm not familiar with his work, I'm sure it will profit me to explore it some more and then re-read this volume. Sedgwck co-edited a volume of Tomkins work, Shame and its Sisters, which I'll have to read before I come back to Touching again.

Well, not quite. There are several essays that can be read profitably without going to Tomkins. Her second essay, 'Around the Performative', marvellously explores "the most conventional Victorian periperformative topoi... the one that yokes... marriage among British subjects, with... the institution of chattel slavery of Africans and their descendants in the New World" (79). The fourth essay, 'Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're so Paranoid , You Probably Think This Essay is About You', brilliantly parallels the paranoid perspective on the world and the workings of critical theory and the implications that poses for queer readings. She calls for reparative reading practices that rely on contingency; readings, as in the style of camp, "that want to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources for an inchoate self" (149). I'm a great believer in plenitude and I also like the notion of contingency: I'm suspicious of overarching claims especially for Truth with a capital T and especially when Truth is covertly tied to Power with a capital P. That's not to say that there can be no capital T Truth, however too often it gets hijacked by capital P Power. As in the gospel notion of removing the mote in one's own eye before attending to the splinter in the other's eye, I think the consciousness of contingency is a critical edge that must first be applied to one's own work. I am my own biggest critic and not only of what I write.

The books essays are written under the shadow of the cancer that finally killed her and so the last essay, 'Pedagogy of Buddhism', I found especially poignant. I'm passing on a copy to my friend, Madhatter (who sadly has closed the blog Another Note for the time being) who I think/hope will appreciate it and whose feedback/commentary I will look forward to. But as a catlover and regular catsitter, Sedgwick won me with her opening image of feline near miss pedagogy of their humans who have consistently misread the actions of their pets:

...according to the anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, "Cats may may be assuming the role of educator when they bring prey indoors to their human owners... A mother cat starts teching her kittens from the moment they start following her... Later she gives them hands-on practice by flipping victims in their direction... So perhaps cats who release live prey in our houses are trying to give us some practice, to hone our hunting skills" (cited Sedgwick 153)

And Sedgwick comments:

And beside the frustrations of the feline pedagogue are the more sobering ones of the stupid human owner. It's so often too late when we finally recognize the "resistance" (mouse flipping) of a student/patient as a form of pedagogy aimed at us and inviting our mimesis. We may wonder afterwards whether and how we could have managed to turn into the particular teacher/therapist needed by each one. Perhaps their implication has been: Try it my way - if you're going to teach me. Or even: I have something more important to teach you than you have to teach me (154)

And from that introduction, Sedgwick then surveys the "vast systemic misunderstandings and cross purposes that seem to underlie this trans-Pacific pedagogy ... between Asia and Euro-America on the subject of Buddhism itself" (154-5). It's a dynamic in which Sedgwick has participated, been complicit as she herself turned to Buddhism, a turn given added urgency by the strictures of her cancer. In many respects, I found this the most intimate of her essays but perhaps that is an after effect of her recent death - the essay itself was written many years ago now.

I always wish I had met Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. I had her on my list of possible thesis examiners that I gave to my PhD supervisor, Ed Conrad, back in 2000 or was it 2001, because she was such an important influence on my work, then the dissertation, but late with my contributions to the Queer Bible Commentary, especially my chapter on Genesis. What I admire in and aspire to from Sedgwick's work is both the critical edge and the openness to plenitude. I hope I succeeded in the dissertation and Sodomy, the book that came out of it. I feel more confident of my work in the Queer Bible Commentary. I hope so anyway. Sadly she never did examine my dissertation and I never got to meet her, not, at least, outside of her work.

But enough of me, it should be about Eve. And so I want to point you to a marvellous review of Touching Feeling, "How to Avoid Being Paranoid", by Melissa Gregg that Mark Bahnisch pointed me to (thanks Mark). Here's a sample:

Sedgwick's book is a serious consideration of the affective and performative aspects of intellectual work. Yet its message is of concern to those who seek to understand how the critical tools of cultural theory might be used to negotiate lives outside, as well as within, the walls of the Academy. To quote one of the most inspired passages of the book, here is Sedgwick remarking on the radical disjuncture that potentially threatens this transference:
I daily encounter graduate students who are dab hands at unveiling the hidden historical violences that underlie a secular, universalist liberal humanism. Yet these students' sentient years, unlike the formative years of their teachers, have been spent entirely in a xenophobic Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush America where "liberal" is, if anything, a taboo category and where "secular humanism" is routinely treated as a marginal religious sect, while a vast majority of the population claims to engage in direct intercourse with multiple invisible entities such as angels, Satan, and God (139-40).

One has only to think of the discursive punch of a phrase like `Axis of Evil' to know where Sedgwick comes from. Her thoughts have a particular potency as I write this review, reeling from the pictures of prisoners mistreated in the Iraq war. The point is that the landscape for the work of cultural criticism changes quickly, and Sedgwick urges vigilance in assessing the usefulness of our preferred hermeneutics:

...the force of any interpretive project of unveiling hidden violence would seem to depend on a cultural context, like the one assumed in Foucault's early works, in which violence would be deprecated and hence hidden in the first place. Why bother exposing the rules of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system? In the United States and internationally, while there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hypervisible from the start may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret. (140)

For Sedgwick, the essays in Touching Feeling record and respond to her own `decreasing sense of having a strong center of gravity in a particular intellectual field' (2). A final chapter on Buddhism and its relation to teaching indicates that her resources are wide and varied: in the quest to interrogate those truths that appear most self evident, `the absolute privilege of the writing act itself' must also be included (3). This is sobering reading at the same time as it is motivational for anyone involved in scholarly pursuits. Sedgwick sheds light on the wide range of sensations the vocation involves, including moments of frustration, disillusion, anger, and joy. Of the many insights and fronts for action suggested by this book, the one I will take most to heart is a continuing belief in possibility. This is especially necessary when in more cynical moments a favoured interpretation seems automatic or even mandatory.

On another note, Readers will see below my blogroll a new gadget. It's a new Google search facility customised to search all the blogs that are categorised as biblioblogs. Go ahead play with it.