Monday, December 24, 2007
When the darkness seems deepest, and the nights are longest and coldest, there is hope, symbolized by a Yule log, or candles, or simple gifts to each other. Then the year tips, and the nights grow shorter and the sun returns, bringing hope and warmth and new crops.
That the story of the birth of a child in Bethlehem has inspired generation after generation of people to try to be kinder, truer human beings. That we're reminded each year at this time to love one another as we love ourselves. To be kind to our neighbors. That miracles happen in simple, humble ways and places, but extraordinary all the same.
That we all, at heart, look towards light and hope and being better people.
Merry Christmas, everyone. I'm humbled by your continued presence here, and I'm honored to know you even in small ways.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
December 2007 Volume One Issue Five
StoriesThe Ladies is a subtle story, marked with Bear's deft word-smithing and wry sense of humor.
Realms of Fantasy, in 1998, slightly edited.
This may be my favorite issue so far. These are some really terrific stories, and I'm awfully happy to announce that the 'zine will go monthly, as of Volume 2.1 - scheduled to go live January 15th, 2008.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The Christmas Campaign:
"Why a Christmas Campaign?
"In recent years some media pundits and 'culture warriors' have waged a vocal campaign against a so-called 'War on Christmas.' Targeting department stores, local governments and school systems for replacing Christmas with 'Happy Holidays' or 'Seasons Greetings,' Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson of Fox News have led the charge against what they call a 'secular progressive agenda' determined to drive religion out of the public square. William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights warns of 'cultural fascists' bent on destroying Christmas.
"The real assault on Christmas, however, is an excessive consumer culture that has turned a holy season into a celebration of commercialism and materialism. By focusing our attention on shopping malls and the consumerism that accompanies Christmas, this misguided campaign further distracts us from the real message of the holiday..."
Dismaying news from Terry Pratchett:
I would have liked to keep this one quiet for a little while, but because of upcoming conventions and of course the need to keep my publishers informed, it seems to me unfair to withhold the news. I have been diagnosed with a very rare form of early onset Alzheimer's, which lay behind this year's phantom 'stroke'. . ."
The History of LOLCats
"Historian Ben Burrns brings us through this history of LOLCats. Did you know that 26% of all emails contain a LOLcat photo?"
The Poet who could smell vowels:
"'In French we write the same vowel four different ways in terrain, plein, matin, chien. Now when this vowel is written ain, I see it in pale yellow like an incompletely baked brick; when it is written ein, it strikes me as a network of purplish veins; when it is written in, I no longer know at all what colour sensation it evokes in my mind, and am inclined to believe that it evokes none.'
"When Saussure associates ain with an incompletely baked brick, it is hard not to think of the prototypical baked good, and one of the two most common French words to contain ain. Although pain (bread) is not mentioned, it too is a pale yellow when incompletely baked. When ein strikes him as a network of veins, this time the word used to identify the visual association is present – veines – though while the letters ein are there, in this word they are not pronounced with the vowel he is discussing. If in evokes nothing, could that have to do with in- being a negative prefix? Or with in being the stressed vowel of his given name, Mongin, which he never used?
"'So it does not seem to be the vowel as such – as it exists for the ear, that is – that calls forth a certain corresponding visual sensation. On the other hand, neither is it seeing a certain letter or group of letters that calls forth this sensation. Rather it is the vowel as it is contained in this written expression, it is the imaginary being formed by this first association of ideas which, through another association, appears to me as endowed with a certain consistency and a certain colour, sometimes also a certain shape and a certain smell.'"
Arctic summers ice-free 'by 2013'
"Scientists in the US have presented one of the most dramatic forecasts yet for the disappearance of Arctic sea ice.
Their latest modelling studies indicate northern polar waters could be ice-free in summers within just 5-6 years."
It's a strange, frightening, and marvelous world we live in, and these are interesting times.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause . . ."
A Chainsaw-Wielding Yankee in King Arthur's Demonic Court - Richard Scott Nokes
A concise and excellent examination about what we're still learning about ourselves through those once and future stories that echo of Camelot.
Hope you like it, too.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Other is a dangerous to everyone else, and dangerous to the poor soul judged to be other.
Some links for you:
Fairies Kill Four Villagers
(and the Archive's press release)
People took this stuff very, very seriously.
Bridget Cleary: Fairy Intrusion in Nineteenth Century Ireland
Lisa Spangenberg relates the untimely death of Bridget Cleary:
In March of 1895 Bridget Boland Cleary was a trained seamstress, with a good eye for fashion, who owned her own Singer sewing machine. She lived with her husband Michael Cleary and her father Patrick Boland in a small cottage in Ballyvadlea, Tipperary, Ireland. Michael, like his wife, was atypical in that he could read and write; he worked as a cooper. In 1895 they'd been married about eight years; Bridget was 26, and Michael was 35. On the fifteenth of March, Michael Cleary, believing his wife Bridget had been taken by the fairies and that they had left a changeling in her place, having spent three days in various rituals that were intended to force the changeling to leave and bring his wife back from where the fairies had taken her, set fire to her. He and nine others of Bridget Cleary's relatives and neighbors were tried for her death._________________________________
Let's Watch a Girl Get Beaten To Death
Joss Whedon's well-linked rant:
I try to think how we got here. The theory I developed in college (shared by many I’m sure) is one I have yet to beat: Womb Envy. Biology: women are generally smaller and weaker than men. But they’re also much tougher. Put simply, men are strong enough to overpower a woman and propagate. Women are tough enough to have and nurture children, with or without the aid of a man. Oh, and they’ve also got the equipment to do that, to be part of the life cycle, to create and bond in a way no man ever really will. Somewhere a long time ago a bunch of men got together and said, “If all we do is hunt and gather, let’s make hunting and gathering the awesomest achievement, and let’s make childbirth kinda weak and shameful.” It’s a rather silly simplification, but I believe on a mass, unconscious level, it’s entirely true. How else to explain the fact that cultures who would die to eradicate each other have always agreed on one issue? That every popular religion puts restrictions on women’s behavior that are practically untenable? That the act of being a free, attractive, self-assertive woman is punishable by torture and death?_________________________________
"The Sky Isn't Evil. Try Looking Up."
The excellent PNH's take on the Joss Whedon rant, linked above. TNH posted this in the illuminating and vigorous comments thread:
The question of whether or not you're respectable is a subtext in these interactions. The game goes like this: if you're a good girl, you'll be confused and upset by what they're saying. If you're not a good girl, you're fair game. I once heard Annie Sprinkle say that until prostitution is legalized, no woman will be free. This struck me as true at the time, but it took a long time for me to tease out the implications. One of them is that as long as there are women who are outside the protection of the social contract, all women are threatened with reassignment to that category._________________________________
Not Your Erotic Not Your Exotic (with thanks to Laura Mixon for the link)
An eloquent, angry, and articulate blog post:
I read Vox Ex Machina's post entitled "Help Iraqi Women" in which she covers, with disgust, a site called International Sex Guide._________________________________
I clicked on the link above and read some from white men telling other white men about "hitting" and "banging" women of color in Iraq, Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, India, South Africa ... and on and on ...
This sh*t is violent. Demeaning. Colonial.
This is a war.
We've not even talked about witches, yet. For that, I'm going to return briefly to one of my own posts from about a couple of years ago:
I give you Sarah Wilds. She was, by some accounts, a somewhat wild young woman. She'd been arrested twice for lewd behavior in the past.
One of those arrests was for wearing a bright scarf.
The Salem arrest warrant for Sarah (and others included in the same warrant) reads:
Salem Aprill the 21'th 1692 There Being Complaint this day made (before us) by Thomas putnam and John Buxton of Salem Village Yeomen, in behalfe of their Majest's for them selfes and also for severall of theire Neighbours, Against Wm Hobbs husbandman and Delive' his wife, Nehemiah Abot Jun'r weaver. Mary Easty the wife of Isaac Easty and Sarah. Wilds the wife of John Wilds all of the Towne of Topsfield.
This all gets quite depressing, after a while. Especially when you can open any newspaper and find another story that would fit right in, here.
So there's an odd tension happening here, right? First, the hints that sexuality forms the real issue. Otherness is hawt. Wild and unfettered and somehow much sexier and more exotic . . . something as small as a brightly-colored scarf can mark you as other.
And it's okay, appealing and naughty, even, as long as you're not too other. Then you're still sexy, but you probably are too dangerous to actually fuck. And look at the accompanying language around otherness and sex -- it's very much the language of violence.
And it's on a gradient, right? The more other Bridget Cleary gets, the more independent, the more self-sufficient, the longer she remains childless -- the more other she seems. Remember the newspaper article linked, a couple of paragraphs ago? "The party's discriminating tone harkens to the day of the 'brown paper bag test,' which compared the complexions of blacks to a brown grocery bag before they could be admitted to social clubs and affairs, said Pearl Jr." It's titillating and sexy to be just other enough. But too far beyond the pale, and you're a threat.
Let's look at TNH's observation again, shall we?
"As long as there are women who are outside the protection of the social contract, all women are threatened with reassignment to that category."
Too much other, and you're a whore. A slut.
Or worse, yet -- Queer.
More on all this, soon.
Monday, September 10, 2007
I've long argued that the real philosophy behind much of the anti-choice rhetoric is really, truly, deeply misogynistic, and it's about denying women the most basic control over their own reproductive systems.
The Republicans balking about Plan B, I think, supports that contention.
Monday, August 27, 2007
Part II - MN, EQ, etc
First, to address a couple of the points that came up in the comments, so they don't get lost:
[Note from Mac: (Here's a bibliography for Elizabeth Grosz, by the way, for those of us less familiar with modern feminist critical theory and philosophy than Eileen.) If you're interested, here's an essay available online: "Sexual Difference and the Problem of Essentialism."]
Okay -- from the comment: I think you will see that I am: first, arguing that "queer" can never divorce itself from "woman," which will always--on a cultural level, anyway--be the foundation of "queer" [in the eyes of, say, the most hetero-normative communities]; and second, arguing, mainly following Elizabeth Grosz [a feminist, I might add] that, evolutionary-biological-wise, we are, all of us "hetero-queer"
Right -- that's all well and good, as far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn't go far enough. So let's push the idea a bit, eh? The idea that the concept of queer cannot be divorced from the perception of woman, and therefore fear of queerness = misogyny, has been around very nearly as long as I've been alive, at least. It goes in sort of chicken-and-egg circles, though, unless you can introduce something new into the equation.
To find something new there, we're going to have to make some extrapolations, and maybe even a leap or two. That is, we have to get to the "So what?" part and apply the raw idea in a way that it has relevance. We can do that. And maybe we can do that without the academic-speak wanking that mostly just serves, frankly, to obfuscate the discussion.
Eileen points out that one way to push the idea is to assert, as feminist Elizabeth Grosz does, the "hetero-queer" spectrum "produced through endlessly transmogrifying yet partially dimorphically fixed chains of sexual difference" which is a start -- but not all that helpful, honestly, in terms of defending the relevance of the assertion that "queer" cannot be divorced from "woman."
I would assert, by way of explanation, that while queer = other, and woman = other -- and indeed the two are therefore inextricably related -- both concepts function as facets of sexuality, and sexual otherness. That is, this is all rather bigger than academic feminism. This is art and life -- or more specifically, in terms of literature, it's all about sex and death. This is where squick and squee live, and like the Jungian shadow-self we touched on with Ishmael and Queequeg, there's no getting away from it. Which, I think, is what Eileen Joy and Eizabeth Grosz are both getting at (just neither quickly nor directly enough to suit my own impatient nature.)
To put it plainly, and then work backwards: This all strongly suggests that we are all other.
Grosz said in an interview:
. . . the thing is that acts don’t have an "other." Only Subjects have an "other," and in a way, that’s partly the advantage of the Deleuzean model over the Hegelianism or psychoanalysis, in which there can’t be a self without an "other." Therefore the "other" has a peculiar control over the subject and the subject has to negotiate with the other as its compromise for existing in a world peopled by others. The beauty of Deleuze’s model is that it’s not clear that we need an "other" and, if there is one, we have no capacity to master this "other."To restate: "The beauty of Deleuze’s model is that it’s not clear that we need an 'other' and, if there is one, we have no capacity to master this 'other.'"
The tension around mastering the other has worn a lot of different faces, as long as humans have been writing stories down. Ultimately, the way this plays out in our literature is that part that's most interesting to me, because it's reflective of the way we've thought about it all, and how the way we talk about it, and write about it, is changing and evolving.
I rather think Grosz states it upside down. It's not that there is no other. It's that there is no us.
The fear and tension and need to master other is about seeing ourselves "through a glass darkly" and the inherent terror of that confrontation. To be other is to be inarguably outside the bounds of the safety of community acceptance -- whatever that community may be.
That is, other is all about sex and death. For our purposes, other is how we examine and define our squick and squee.
(And here I'm going to crib shamelessly from myself. You can find the original posts here, and here -- but here's the part pertaining to this discussion:)
Aristotle asserted in The Poetics, "Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies." (IV)
That's about squick. It's important. It's also a complex concept. Exciting and engaging stories can find my squick button, without actually pushing my face in it--it's related to the Blair Witch Project phenomenon, whereby that which is unseen is so much scarier and ickier than anything seen clearly--but you can't help looking anyway.
There are ancient human aversions as powerful today as ever--fiction gives us a tool to examine those hot-buttons, safely. So Aristotle is pretty clearly onto something real when he talks about catharsis--even though the word itself isn't present in The Poetics:
|Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the |
impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is
proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.
Aristotle talked about catharsis in terms of music, in Politics, so we know he thought about it. The etymology of the word says a lot about how he thinks this all works: "catharsis from Gk. katharsis "purging, cleansing," from kathairein "to purify, purge," from katharsos "pure."
From a decent essay about the Poetics:
|The word catharsis drops out of the Poetics because the word wonder, to rhaumaston, replaces it, first in chapter 9, where Aristotle argues that pity and fear arise most of all where wonder does, and finally in chapters 24 and 25, where he singles out wonder as the aim of the poetic art itself, into which the aim of tragedy in particular merges. Ask yourself how you feel at the end of a tragedy. You have witnessed horrible things and felt painful feelings, but the mark of tragedy is that it brings you out the other side. Aristotle's use of the word catharsis is not a technical reference to purgation or purification but a beautiful metaphor for the peculiar tragic pleasure, the feeling of being washed or cleansed.|
This section the Poetics is particularly relevant in terms of squick and squee buttons. In fiction, for instance, a successful piece of writing can find your squick button and make you like it -- because it's ultimately about human truth: we're attracted and repelled by the blood mingled with rain on the pavement and the flashing lights from the emergency vehicles, because "oh my god that could be me..." but then, to push it even a step further, "and what is that thing crouched in the driver's seat . . ? And is it eating . . . ohmygod it is!"
That's the "pity and fear" part of the reader/writer exchange -- empathy and identification.
When a written work gives that to us, it's enormously gratifying. We can try out these emotions in a safe context, and we understand ourselves and the world all the better for it.
Let's return to this quote from The Poetics: "Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated." (IV)
Aristotle takes as given the concept of art imitating life, or mimesis, and the Poetics is primarily preoccupied with the mechanics of how that works, and how a poem or song or play or painting is made--and what constitutes success. And if indeed, poetry (or fiction, now, since we've broadened our understanding of story) is about imitating life, then it very much is a process of discovery, right?
Because at its very best, a story says something true. Or rather, more accurately, something True. That truth is already existent and external to the not-yet-created text. It just is. That means it's got to be something intrinsic to human experience -- something we all can know, and acknowledge, and can understand--even if it's at first unfamiliar. At some point, we should recognize, "Ah, yes. I know this truth. This is exactly how it really is."
Because the truth the story or poem tells to us is already there. It exists, with or without the frame of the words and the story. The more perfectly framed and expressed, though, the better the imitation. The more perfect the picture not just of the world inside the story, that is, not just the constructed details of economics and clothing and characters and landscape--but of something much more abstract and important, something humanly True--the more perfect that word-picture, the more accessible the underlying and informing reality becomes.
That brings us to Kip's comment:
kiplet said...There are a couple of things I want to specifically address in what Kip is saying. I suspect he's very smartly seen immediately where this is all headed -- but he brings up a couple of questions.
But: the Magical Negro isn’t always about the good and dead equation. There’s also something of an apology there (a self-serving apology), and something of an excuse or justification (though pathetic tea at both): see? They do have power! Though it’s power that doesn’t work so well in our dominant context of lawyers, guns, and money. (Perhaps because it’s so earthy and rhythmic . . .)Why is it, though, that the Magical Negro doesn't ever survive the end of the story, then? The trope character pretty reliably either dies (Mother Abigail from The Stand) or else vanishes as mysteriously as s/he arrived.
So, no. I don't think it's actually changed that much. I think it's just trying to burrow underground, out of the light of social and cultural change.
Perhaps because the sexual other has always been found, even within one’s tribe, but the ability to have and hold a racial other, closely enough that its implicit threat must be subsumed but not obliterated, is with isolated exceptions a much more modern phenomenon?
Actually, I'd assert that racial other is essentially about sexual other. And I think Kip pretty clearly knows that. Let's look again at his sentence from the last point, " . . . see? They do have power! Though it’s power that doesn’t work so well in our dominant context of lawyers, guns, and money. (Perhaps because it’s so earthy and rhythmic . . .)"
Errr, well yes. All that "earthy, rhythmic" stuff is terrifying unless you have a really big gun with which to compensate.
In terms of examining other, then, we've been constructing stories from the beginning of storytelling to explain and examine the threat to our communities from Outside. That threat is specifically sexual in nature. That's how other works our squick buttons and our squee buttons at the same time, and why we just can't put it down.
In part IV, we'll finally leave off all the introducing of ideas, and take this to some of those stories themselves, as illustration of what we've been talking about so far. Magic is very queer stuff indeed, and always has been, in pretty much every sense of the word.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Part I is here, in case you're just joining us. If you'd rather not wade through it, here's a brief summary:
Other is a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community -- but often, also serves as the agent for the community's salvation/redemption.
Familiar examples of other from stuff you've read or seen: Queer characters, like Tara in BtVS; Brown characters, especially as the highly-refined Magical Negro; Women, in almost anything pre-1900; Gypsies in any fiction I've ever seen them appear in; Fairies, in pretty much any fiction that takes them seriously -- but especially in medieval texts.
When we left off, last, I'd just started discussing the Eileen Joy essay, found here.
Now, we're going to skip ahead a bit again, though.
Fast forward, again:
A month or so after K'zoo, I had an interesting and lively discussion with Dawno and Medievalist over Irish coffees in a Hilton bar about the Magical Negro trope in fiction.
Here's a brief definition..
Magical Negroes are always outwardly or inwardly disabled. They are either from a minority that is discriminated against, physically or mentally disabled, or social outcasts (drifters, the homeless, ex-cons)....whose magical minority-powers save the day. It also tends to raise the question that if the Magical Negro is so powerful and intelligent, why he's never saving the day, himself, instead of helping the mainstream hero to get all the glory. Also, quite often he's just ditched off or even killed after he's fulfilled his purpose for the plot.
We had some disagreement, as could be expected, over whether these stock characters were merely tropes, or actually characters in their own right; primarily, the discussion focused around which well-known black characters from books and film were and weren't Magical Negroes, and why.
Then, in one of those serendipitous coincidences that sometimes happen (remind me to post about my Indian Paintbrush Theory, sometime) a few days later Elizabeth Bear posted an entry mentioning the same thing. She wrote:
The clearest example of how this solution could work that I can think of off the top of my head is the so-called magical Negro, which is a phrase used to describe a situation where the (white) protagonist has a (black) mentor figure who is inevitably snuffed in the third reel. (You may substitute the Other of your choice in the magical Negro role, above: Apache shaman, wise old Jew, creepy witch woman, Inuit medicine man, cute nonthreatening gay best friend... you know the character, right?)
...the difference between Ben Kenobi and a magical Negro is that Ben is not Other to everybody else in the film.
And that's also the solution, right there. Because if you only have one of something, it automatically becomes a poster child. You only have one black guy in the movie? Oh, man, we know he's gonna die. Same thing with one queer guy (Heroic gays always die! It's a law! It's how you know they're heroic!). One woman is the love interest, and she will either stand by her man or betray him. And she might also die.
Wellllll....sort of. Other differences between Ben Kenobi and the Magical Negro are that Ben isn't a jobless, homeless wino. Or in prison. Or working as a janitor. And Ben has a past, alluded to as part of the back story; he doesn't simply appear, full-grown, with no explanation other than the protagonist's greater destiny is served by his presence. He also isn't the only character in the story who possesses mystical powers.
There's something rather more complicated to the actual Magical Negro trope, I think. It's not exactly the same as a token (disposable) sidekick of minority race or persuasion.
Here's another interesting thing: Magical Negro characters don't usually get to have sex. They aren't married, or romantically involved. They usually don't have children, or families, or real people who love them. In fact, they often appear out of the mists, full grown, like Bagger Vance.
This contrasts sort of strangely with the token queer character who does get to have sex -- even if only offstage -- who is in fact defined by the sex s/he has, and usually gets killed, messily, often apparently as a direct result.
At this point, I start thinking to myself, "hmmm, self, there's something going on there, about other sex." It seem clear that either extreme -- no sex, no family/shocking sex=death serves strictly to exemplify the specifically sexual threat of otherness . . . a threat that can only be answered by neutering or killing the practitioners.
From the (pretty decent at the time of this posting -- subject to change weirdly, randomly, and without notice) Wikipedia entry on the subject:
...black characters with apparent supernatural powers who are portrayed as independent, who have a level of power roughly equivalent to that of other characters, and who are not subservient to whites — such as Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) in Star Wars, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in the Matrix series, and Storm (Halle Berry) in the X-Men — are not usually considered weakened magical negroes; nor are helpful non-white characters without some magical or fantastical element.
...Even though they may play a central figure in a storyline, they are portrayed as being unable to solve challenges without the involvement of a white associate.
In other words, there's more at work here than ordinary tokenism -- plenty of which abounds.
Kip Manley, partially in response to the original posting of this essay, further examines the ideas of both the Magical Negro and the arbitrary knee-jerk offing of queer characters, beginning with a brief examination of Morpheus from The Matrix.
Oh, hell, let’s chase the red herring for a minute. I’ve got time; I’ve got nothing but time. —So: no. Morpheus is not a magical negro. If nothing else, his touchingly stubborn faith in Neo, which sets him at odds with the magical Oracle, which causes us to doubt him (though we never doubt he’s right: Neo must be the One—look at his name!), and which even causes him to doubt himself—this grants him a degree of agency and protagonism that sets him apart from the mere role of wisely aiding and abetting Neo’s enlightenment. (To say nothing of his captaincy, his popular acclaim in Zion, or the fact that he’s the one who lives to tell the tale—)Kip uses that as a jumping-off place to examine Romeo and Juliet's Mercutio, specifically in the context of the Baz Luhrman version:
Ostensibly Romeo’s foil, Perrineau’s Mercutio practically foils the whole damn film, othered to his very gills: the only black character, his gender bent in an otherwise rigidly stratified world, his sexuality—well. Even the lightest brush of those buttons with Mercutio—witty, articulate, prancing Mercutio, always a snappy dresser—leaves little room for doubt. —Forever outside the discourse of both those houses, he pushes and pulls and chides his charge until Romeo sees the light and gets off his goddamn ass, and as far as magic goes, well. Queen Mab, bitches. Those drugs are quick.So we've some definite and demonstrable tension with regard to the conflation of other types of characters. Other = queer. More on this, too, when we forge ahead into part three.
In the meantime, though, we have an observable trend. The subservience, outlandishness, and neutering of other characters works to ameliorate the subconscious sense of threat that their otherness might represent to the reader. The implication, then, is that the threat is justifiable, otherwise the need for the trope falls apart.
Let's look at Stephen King's John Coffey character, in The Green Mile. John Coffey is a childlike but extraordinarily powerful black man, wrongfully imprisoned (and shown more than once literally in shackles) who nonetheless exists, apparently, only to make the (white) characters' lives better, the protagonist and secondary white characters, both.
He's been imprisoned for a particularly horrific and brutal child rape/murder, of which he's innocent. He's physically large -- freakishly so, in fact. The reader knows intuitively and instinctively that the other characters in the novel are legitimately afraid of him. It doesn't have to be spelled out for us, because contextually, it's very clear: John Coffey is very big, and very black. In addition, he's caught weeping over the bodies; it's only natural for the characters to figure he's guilty of something horrible. Now, there's some sub-textual commentary happening, too, of course -- I think King clearly attempts to point out, "look, stereotypes bad..." especially in contrasting the messiah-like figure of John Coffey with the very clearly guilty, dangerous, and truly frightening (white) characters "Wild Bill" Wharton and Percy Wetlow. Unfortunately, it serves instead to underscore the fact that the real power in the novel lies in whiteness -- which John Coffey exists only to serve and never be.
It's clear that if John Coffey decided to stand up for himself and function independently, the white characters would be in deep trouble. Instead, though, he's a lawful good sort of a character. And lawful good, in his case, is defined as self-sacrifice to help out the apparently less-powerful-but-white characters -- even the legitimately convicted criminals -- with acts like curing urinary tract infections and restoring Mr. Jingles, the mouse that Percy the prison guard stomps to taunt one of the other prisoners.
Coffey's great power exists, apparently, only in the context of service of his white captors -- who, in turn, seem to bear no responsibility or culpability for his situation. Instead, they're absolved of their participation in his imprisonment and execution.
Strange Horizons ran an essay that provides an excellent overview of the Magical Negro device as used by Stephen King, online here.
In The Green Mile, Coffey is most gracious. "'You and Mr. Howell and the other bosses been good to me,' John Coffey said. 'I know you been worrying, but you ought to quit on it now. Because I want to go, boss,'" he says near the end to Edgecomb. Coffey basically thanks his jailers who have not questioned his guilt until it's too late and done nothing to help him get out of jail (until Coffey cures the warden's wife) or even convince him to try.
None of this would have worked, if John Coffey had been a white Ben Kenobi character. We couldn't/wouldn't forgive Luke and Leia, had they participated in Ben's imprisonment, mental torture, and execution. For that matter, if the Coffey character had been female and black, even, the reader reaction to the culpable white characters would perhaps have been very different.
Rita Kempley, on The Black Commentator points out:
Cedric Robinson, author of "Black Marxism" and a colleague of Bobo's at UCSB, says, "Males, more problematic in the American imagination, have become ghostly. The black male simply orbits above the history of white supremacy. He has no roots, no grounding. In that context, black anger has no legitimacy, no real justification. The only real characters are white. Blacks are kind of like Tonto, whose name meant fool."
She goes on later to clarify, "It isn't that the actors or the roles aren't likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives. For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters. Sometimes they walk out of the mists like Will Smith's angelic caddy in 'The Legend of Bagger Vance.' Thanks to Vance, the pride of Savannah (Matt Damon) gets his 'authentic swing' back."
It has to work that way, because that's the only way we can justify the treatment of these characters at the hands of the protagonists they exist to serve. If the Magical Negro isn't a shackled character in service, then he's too threatening to exist in the story.
From the Strange Horizons article linked earlier:
Here are what I call the Five Points of the Magical Negro; the five most common attributes:
1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.
The archetype of the Magical Negro is an issue of race. It is the subordination of a minority figure masked as the empowerment of one. The Magical Negro has great power and wisdom, yet he or she only uses it to help the white main character; he or she is not threatening because he or she only seeks to help, never hurt. The white main character's well-being comes before the Magical Negro's because the main character is of more value, more importance.
Let me emphasize this part:
"The archetype of the Magical Negro is an issue of race. It is the subordination of a minority figure masked as the empowerment of one. The Magical Negro has great power and wisdom, yet he or she only uses it to help the white main character; he or she is not threatening because he or she only seeks to help, never hurt."
At risk of sounding like one of Bear's "3 % who are professionally offended" I think this is a key difference, and an important one. I honestly don't think the writers and filmmakers who employ the trope are inherently racist or bigoted, at least not any more than we're all steeped in that bigotry as products of our society. But I do think we all have a responsibility to identify, mock, and eradicate culturally embedded racism.
There's an inherent morality lesson built into thematic tropes that show up again and again. There's a thing that happens when certain characters always, always die. In the case of queer characters (Tara in season six BtVS, anyone?) the lesson comes across loud and clear, "see what happens to dykes and faggots? Get the message?" And in the case of the Magical Negro trope, it looks rather queasily, to me, like "the only really good nigger is a dead one."
So let's be plain. Let's look unflinchingly at the tropes and cliches we go along with, nodding, without actually looking directly at the mostly unspoken lessons they contain.
This brings us back to the Eileen Joy essay linked at the top. She writes:
While queer theory could be said to have begun with specific human and even posthuman bodies—with their indeterminate and illicit flows and intensities and, let’s say, their once-unspeakable and subversive desires—queer theory today, in the recent words of David Eng, has become “subject-less,” admitting of “no fixed political referent.” As a term, queer cannot be allowed to stray from what might be called its essential contingency, in the sense that it must always pose a certain resistance to whatever is considered fixed or “normal,” an ontological state of affairs that is always changing over time. In this sense, queer studies is about everything, and even, following Carolyn Dinshaw’s lead, about “touching” and making queer “affective contact” with everything: it is about sex and sexuality as always, but it is also about race, religion, empire, immigration, globalization, citizenship, sovereignty, terrorism, etc. And in another sense, queer theory is also now about the end of everything we think we know, about sex and sexuality and human bodies, but also about history and time.
That's the heart of the matter, really -- and the trickiest, most prickly bit to get around if you're writing from a place on the margins to begin with. That queering of everything rankles on a number of levels if you're already inextricably tangled in queerness in its more strictly defined sense.
Interjected note: I've never used this blog to beat my Big Gay Drum -- and I'm not, frankly, about to start now. So if you're here for that, you'll be disappointed. If you're not here for that, I expect you're relieved. And that, all by itself, is deeply revelatory of the sorts of internal tension dynamics we're going to be further unpacking, in the next chunk.
Again, this is getting long for a blog post -- so I'll let it rest here, for now, and I'll see you again in a few days with part III.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
I've been thinking about this post for a long time. There's this thing about specfic that allows us as writers and readers, both, to thoroughly examine themes of other, in ways that other literary traditions simply don't flex to accommodate. When you turn the idea of other on its head the way specfic can, you get some pretty interesting and disturbing stuff -- like Ursula Le Guin's Hugo-winning "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." (Available in The Wind's Twelve Quarters.) [ETA: I originally included a link to the story itself, but upon a bit of investigation discovered it was not an unauthorized use. Ms. Le Guin still retains copyright, and while I don't know her, I can't imagine she's fabulously wealthy. Writers generally don't get rich from writing -- please don't support intellectual property theft.]
Other isn't a terribly hard concept, even if you don't consciously recall encountering the idea. If you've ever read a book or a story that features token gypsies, queers, brown people, or even (oftentimes) women -- you've already encountered other. It means just what it says: other than. Other than white. Other than het. Other than us ("us" being a sort of weird unspoken default setting that means, in an awful lot of modern traditional Western-European and American writing, white, heterosexual, and male. We can argue male-as-cultural-default some other time, but I think I can make a pretty strong case for it.)
So Other isn't that tricky. You might have got this stuff in high school English classes. (I didn't -- but I went to an insanely conservative private Christian school -- friggin' all everyone was other.) If you've had a survey Lit course, you've almost certainly heard of it. If you've had a Women's Studies, Queer Studies, or Writing from the Margins class at some point, the concept will be downright familiar and comfy.
Some of literatures most enduring and beloved characters are most empathetic to us because of their own alienation from the safe place of cultural conformity, but they aren't really other. Rather, they occupy a space between -- and almost inevitably, they're trying to get from here to there (there being safely accepted as part of a community.) Other in fiction carries a pretty specific hint of magical threat.
You see the magical threat of otherness in the appearance of fairies, in medieval writing; in the appearance of gypsies, monsters, or queers, in fiction all the way to present; essentially, you can identify other in any character that cannot or will not every be reconciled with the portrayed cultural community, no matter what she or he does over the course of the story. Think of Queequeg, in Moby Dick. (Forget, for the moment, all the Jungian shadow-self stuff that requires we think of him as a dark reflection of Ishmael -- whose very name implies alienation. But you just gotta know we're coming back to it, later . . . )
Ishmael says of Queequeg:
I am no coward, but what to make of this head-peddling purple rascal altogether passed my comprehension. Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, i confess i was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night. In fact, I was so afraid of him that I was not game enough just then to address him, and demand a satisfactory answer concerning what seemed inexplicable in him.
(page 21 in the linked edition)
Queequeg's never, ever going to be mistaken for a New Englander. He's other . . . and that's scary. Worse yet, Ishmael is supposed to share a bed with him -- which is a source of discomfort for Ishmael for a number of paragraphs before he ever lays eyes on Queequeg.
Now, as a lesbian who has been out -- a self-identified dyke, in fact (and, yes, I can almost feel some of you cringing because I used that scary word. It's okay, I promise) -- I know a bit about being other. I know more than a bit about seeing that otherness reflected in text across generations and genres. In fact, though, it's often tremendously educational to read as if we weren't on the margins, to learn what we can from the experience from the perspective of someone safely within culturally-identified norms.
Some of the thinking for this essay started this spring, on my way to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 42nd Medieval Congress. If you should ever have the chance to spend a couple of hours in a car with Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Digital Medievalist, I highly recommend the experience, by the way.
We were talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'd just started methodically watching the DVD collection, having missed the whole BtVS phenomenon, when it actually happened. Someone casually mentioned that Tara dies.
Now. I was only partway through season four, at the time of the discussion, and while spoilers don't typically bother me, I was shocked and appalled to learn this bit of information. I sort of stashed it away, to look into later.
Fast forward, again.
Upon my return from K'zoo, in the context of a discussion regarding some of the presenters, Medievalist sent me this link, and asked me what I thought.
From Eileen A. Joy's Beyond Feminist, Gender, Queer, Everything Studies: Notes Toward an Enamored Medieval Studies:
. . . While queer theory could be said to have begun with specific human and even posthuman bodies—with their indeterminate and illicit flows and intensities and, let’s say, their once-unspeakable and subversive desires—queer theory today, in the recent words of David Eng, has become “subject-less,” admitting of “no fixed political referent.” As a term, queer cannot be allowed to stray from what might be called its essential contingency, in the sense that it must always pose a certain resistance to whatever is considered fixed or “normal,” an ontological state of affairs that is always changing over time. In this sense, queer studies is about everything, and even, following Carolyn Dinshaw’s lead, about “touching” and making queer “affective contact” with everything: it is about sex and sexuality as always, but it is also about race, religion, empire, immigration, globalization, citizenship, sovereignty, terrorism, etc. And in another sense, queer theory is also now about the end of everything we think we know, about sex and sexuality and human bodies, but also about history and time. . . .
Not knowing in advance what precise forms our humanness does and will take—this is the point at which, unlike a certain famous medievalist, I am not going to “get medieval on your ass,” but I am going to “get manifesto” on you. I believe that we inhabit a present moment of what I take to be a kind of crisis, at the national level, in what I am going to call hetero-queer (re)productivity, a state of affairs in which a certain sterility of radical human becomings—both experiential and critico-philosophical—has settled in at precisely the same time as the entertainment industry and other corporations have taken over anything that ever did or ever will call itself “radical” and have sold it to us as the best acid trip ever."Oh, yippee," sez I, "Encourage the straight white chicks who love the idea of queerness, but only without any of the accompanying painful, horrible, soul-searching, overcoming-self-loathing bits. or the part where strangers call you 'fucking dyke,' sometimes under their breath but not usually. WTF is a 'hetero-queer?'"
This is getting long, so I'll leave you to read the essay. I'll be back with the next chunk in a day or so, and if you're an overachiever, and really wanna read ahead, here's a links round up:
In the Middle
Gays/Lesbians in the Media
The evil, dead lesbian cliche
A list of where you can see the evil, dead lesbian cliche in action
On Heterosexual Writer Bias
Unpacking the Magical Negro trope
Magical White Boy
The Kugelmass Episodes on BtVS
Inexplicably Fancy Trash
Part II of this essay, if I've not bored you silly already.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Monday, April 02, 2007
And not in a good way.
I don't read a lot of IT blogs -- the geek culture is way over my head, and I don't move in those circles, for the most part. One of the very nice things about Kathy Sierra's blog is that it's cheerful, optimistic, and the language is accessible. So it was both horrible and confusing to see her so distressed, and perplexing in the extreme to try to comprehend what sort of raving lunatic would post death threats and graphic and disturbing images about Ms. Sierra in the comment-threads on another blog site (since removed by the owners.)
Last week, Ms. Sierra wrote: "As I type this, I am supposed to be in San Diego, delivering a workshop at the ETech conference. But I'm not. I'm at home, with the doors locked, terrified. For the last four weeks, I've been getting death threat comments on this blog. But that's not what pushed me over the edge. What finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs... blogs authored and/or owned by a group that includes prominent bloggers."
The story has continued, and there's apparently been some resolution between the involved parties. Here are the links:
Frank Paynter's response
Chris Locke's original response
Ms. Sierra posted this morning:
Since the whole thing blew up last week, there have been a variety of responses on blogs everywhere, ranging from a complete lack of anything resembling sympathy and understanding as to why it's frightening and horrible for anyone to see comments like: "fuck off you boring slut... i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob" to Tim O'Reilly's call for a blogger code of ethics.
"But these stories should not be about me... I am simply one of a gazillion examples about what's happening today both on and offline. Nor is it a simple Nice Vs. Bully story, and I thought having us come to an understanding would encourage others to stop fighting on either of our behalves and try to listen first, and then talk, and maybe something good and useful really will come of this.
"Although I've learned a lot in the last few days, I still do not know who made the unclebobism photo post, or why, or whether that person is a real threat. That part of the story has continued to devolve in even scarier ways.
"So, this is the last post I'll make for some time, and I've closed comments because I cannot keep up with the hateful ones (including those that post my home address and social security number, etc.)"
What I want to talk about are these key bits from the Kathy Sierra/Chris Locke joint statement
| KS: We've become so desensitized to vile comments on the net that many people can't comprehend why I would feel threatened. But if we dismiss every cruel, vile, sexually threatening comment as simply the work of an anonymous troll, we will no longer be able to recognize a real threat. Are we willing to stake our mother/sister/daughter's life on a sexually and physically threatening photo or comment, simply because it appeared on the internet and therefore must be harmless? |
That said, Chris and I are in complete agreement that it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange. My desire is for much more open debate on this issue, not legislated limits.
CL: There is much more to say about this experience that can't be unpacked in such a brief statement. There is time yet for more balanced articles to be written, less heated conversations to take place. Misogyny is real -- and vile. Violence against women is wrong. It must not be tolerated. This issue should be explored and discussed, not swept under the rug, not rationalized away. At the same time, we need to look closely and carefully at the implications for free speech. The First Amendment allows and protects language that many find noxious. But there are forces in the world at present -- not least in the US -- that would leap at any opportunity to limit speech or even abolish certain forms of it. Crucial as is the current debate about hate speech directed at women, it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange.
There's an attitude among many bloggers that deleting inflammatory comments is censorship. I think that needs to change. I'm not suggesting that every blog will want to delete such comments, but I am suggesting that blogs that do want to keep the level of dialog at a higher level not be censured for doing so.
There are many real-world analogies. Shock radio hosts encourage abusive callers; a mainstream talk radio show like NPR's Talk of the Nation wouldn't hesitate to cut someone off who started spewing hatred and abuse. Frat parties might encourage drunken lewdness, but a party at a tech conference would not. Setting standards for acceptable behavior in a forum you control is conducive to free speech, not damaging to it.
We do all have our trolls. (I'd wave at mine, here, but I don't think they actually read anything I write.)And there's something that happens to some people, sometimes, when they feel fairly anonymous and angry at the same time -- and they go right off into the stratosphere, foaming at the mouth. Blogs have been home to a number of such skirmishes. Hell, I've had numerous shots taken at me, from other blogs--nothing approaching death threats and photo-shopped pictures with nooses--but certainly the occasional incoherent rant with sort of vague "or else" kinds of threats. (Not going to link. Entertaining as it might be, they don't actually deserve the traffic and can't get it on their own.)
So. How do we find the balance? I think good people have to speak up, when things go to hell in a comment string. I think we have to self-police. I think, when someone says something that's clearly horrible and inflammatory, we stuff 'em in a box. Embarrass them. Shame them into either adhering to community standards, or exile them by deletion and/or blocking.
This means that our individual communities need to have standards, though -- so the resulting gestalt of the blogosphere in general will gradually begin to reflect that more individualized culture of responsibility. It seems rather overwhelming, if you look at any statistics at all about how fast new blogs are popping up, let alone podcasts and vlogs.
Which means that we must take responsibility for our own words wherever we are on the web. And stop excusing those who don't. And when someone does something actually egregious and illegal, we cannot dismiss it with, "Well, it's the internet. People talk trash. It doesn't mean anything."
Because words do have meaning.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Here's some of the stuff I looked at this week, in no particular order:
Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet - essay
Questionable Content - web comic I'm completely addicted to for no reason I can explain or identify
Nietzsche, Plato and Aristotle on Mimesis - essay
The Captured German Records Collection - WWII German records
The Religious Movements Page - alphabetical listing with a brief history and summary of religious movements from Adidam to Zoroastrianism
Hailes Castle - Medieval Scottish ruin
Strange Horizons - SF ezine, I rather liked "We Will Not Go To Memphis, Then" which has a strong American poetry flavor, but handles subject matter reminiscent of King's The Stand
A Dictionary of Middle English Cooking Terms - Just what it sounds like. With recipes!
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
I've been stopping in there pretty regularly in the middle of the night for at least a couple of years. The graveyard guy is teaching himself better English by reading old magazine articles. (I dunno where he's from. Somewhere away where people are browner and speak a language that leaves itself marked in English with a musical, lilting accent.) Because it's the middle of the night, there's time to talk about the things he's been reading. Over the last several months, he's taken to underlining words to ask me about, and dog-earing the stories that confuse him or leave him with questions. If I haven't been in for a couple of nights running, he's usually got quite a stack of articles marked up, and a middle-of-the-night 7-11 run can take a good hour or so.
Tonight, he wanted to puzzle through some of the words in an old Newsweek article about Astronaut Lisa Nowak's 900 mile trek--and double check that he had the details and sequence of events straight in his head. But mostly, he wanted to know if I thought it was true. There were a great many more pictures in the print version of the story, including pictures of Nowak and her husband and children. He pointed at the picture of the two little kids, incredulous, and asked if I believed the story.
I wasn't sure, at first, quite what he was asking. In fact, he simply wanted to know if this brilliant and talented woman had indeed thrown away her entire life and career and family for a guy who didn't want her. The diaper thing, the disguise, the pepper-spray in the parking garage--none of that really concerned him, other than as part of the narrative chain of events. He saw straight through the bizarre details to the very human tragedy underneath.
The 7-11 guy is already reading better than a great many American-born English speakers I know. And frankly, he's reading better than many would-be writers I know, too.
Saturday, January 27, 2007
This Emily Dickinson poem is read quite a lot. I think I actually encountered it as a child. Some of you will know it, I'm certain:
online biography points out:
If you were coming in the fall,
I'd brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly.
If I could see you in a year,
I'd wind the months in balls,
And put them each in separate drawers,
Until their time befalls.
If only centuries delayed,
I'd count them on my hand,
Subtracting till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen's land.
If certain, when this life was out,
That yours and mine should be,
I'd toss it yonder like a rind,
And taste eternity.
But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time's uncertain wing,
It goads me, like the goblin bee,
That will not state its sting.
"At times characterised as a semi-invalid, a hermit, a heartbroken introvert, or a neurotic agoraphobic, her poetry is sometimes brooding and sometimes joyous and celebratory. Her sophistication and profound intellect has been lauded by laymen and scholars alike and influenced many other authors and poets into the 21st Century. There has been much speculation and controversy over details of Dickinson’s life including her sexual orientation, romantic attachments, her later reclusive years, and the editing and publication of various volumes of her poems."Emily's personal history mostly lays completely outside my consideration of the poem, honestly. If we just look at the text without speculating about who she might have written about or for, there are a couple of things I really, really like about this poem.
I love her appreciation for simple things--always have. This is a woman who finds beauty in the everyday, and that's just a lovely way to move through the world. This doesn't have the sort of galloping rhythm that some of her more-parodied stuff does, which is good. It's still structurally very tight, and there's that carefully and strongly-evoked sensation of time and seasons passing while she waits.
There's a sort of logic or reason puzzle built in, as well: if . . . then, if . . . then, if . . . then, if . . . then, if . . . then,
(wait for it)
But . . .
And the progression of seasons, years, even centuries is rational and orderly--and that portrayal of reason, logic, and order defied serves to contrast the emotional poignancy of waiting. She brings us back to that poignancy by the simple means of taking us from a hypothetical season, year, century to the intensely personal with, "If certain, when this life was out"--not just any life. This life. And with that, the more detached and almost amused tone changes to the much more personal and passionate.
But even so, with any poem I'm acutely conscious of the negative space; that is the things unsaid but invoked by the actual text are terribly important, too. So when we think about something like uncertainty and waiting, it really only makes sense in the context of certainty and that sensation of "at last!" and those elements, too, are strongly present in this piece.
So I very much read this as, yes, about uncertainty and waiting--but also very much about the beauty of knowing and the joy of anticipated arrival.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Thursday, January 04, 2007
I've already written rather a lot tonight; I'm finding that the more words I'm putting down regularly, the more readily they come. At this point I can feel the words all crowding and pushing and wanting to rush out onto my screen, and I'm actually having to hold them back, a bit. Don't ask...just be grateful. Heh. A little less sleep and I'd be spilling words all over with little or no editorial control.
I'm not one for resolutions. Reflection, though...yes. This last year brought more change to my life, thinking, and writing than I could have believed possible. Good changes. I keep pausing to see if I should feel frightened or overwhelmed, and I just don't.
I've always been a fairly sunshiny person, and long subscribed to the belief that cynicism is bad mental hygiene. This the first New Year in a very long time, though, that I find myself looking forward to eagerly.
Welcome to 2007. It's going to be so damn much fun.