Monday, August 27, 2007

Part III, or, The Magical Other

Part I - Magical Negroes, Expendable Queers, and other well-worn tropes
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:
Eileen Joy said...

Eileen here: I'm a lesbian, gay, queer, whatever. I am not one of those nifty straight people trying to hijack queer-ness in order to be theoretically hip. Far from it. Look carefully at what I am writing [I hope--could be wrong, though, because we can always improve our arguments] and 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" [produced through endlessly transmogrifying yet partially dimorphically fixed chains of sexual difference]. Desire has never been about sameness--I reject categorically the term "homosexual"--it is frankly insulting to those of us labeled as such. Being "homo" does not mean desiring "the same," and even if it did: how boring. [typo fixed - Mac]

12:56 PM
[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.

Walt Kelly, Pogo

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:
Quote:
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.
We might say, now, "you gotta get the audience where they live." Which is as true of Stephen King as it was of Homer or Sophocles. That is, for a piece to work, it has to find that universal human truth that sets up a sympathetic resonance between poet and audience, so that the piece forces the listener or reader to feel something real, or the memory/shadow of something real. This is where the magic happens, and suddenly there's something happening that transcends all the fine points of plot structure, diction, characterization, and unity.


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:
Quote:
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...

Damn, Mac. And here I am in Ashland in the early sleepy morning, about to see Mercutio tomorrow, and thinking, as usual, about the dam’ good neighbors. You deserve more than I can give, at the moment.

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. But it is authentic, and authenticity can be useful, sometimes.) And see? They are nice, and kind, and mild. Though we’ve treated them badly in the past, they don’t so much mind. They have forgiven us. Why, our horrible crime isn’t so horrible after all! Hooray!

Of course, it’s never you do have power, you have forgiven us. Wouldn’t work so well, if one addressed the object directly.

We don’t yet so much have Magical Queers perhaps because there’s not yet enough of a collective sense of shame to crystallize into a limiting, stereotypical trope that allows us through hack storytelling to feel better or at least less worse about the horrible things we’ve done. (The good and dead equation still holds, here, Nick’s point nothwithstanding.) —Though: it’s easy enough to find the queerness in magic (in the specific sense of sexual other), from berdaches to Tiresias. 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?

7:37 AM
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 . . .)"

Wise ass.

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.

4 comments:

Zak said...

I gotta say that the Poetics is pretty much rocking my world. Yet another area of classical reading I need to get caught up on.

I've got some thoughts on Otherness. This bit you said gets right to the heart of it:

"It's not that there is no other. It's that there is no us."

The exact quote I'd like to use is lost in the cheesecloth of my mind, but it goes something like "that which is not a part of us has no power to offend".

The thing I always come back to is that there is a fundamental barrier between every single person. Prosaically, it's a half an inch of calcium, cartilage and bone marrow. The social construct of 'us' is built on the foundation that it's impossible to actually know another person.

Yet, I think the source of otherness is paradoxically recognition. Recognition of self that is denied whether through choice, biology or society. The parrot is just a bird until it starts talking. The ants are just pests until we see they have social organization (at which point they become pest-societies). We have to see something of ourself before a thing even qualifies as other.

But that recognition is always at least partially illusory. The hale-hardy-well-met group of men who slap each others shoulders and scream at football games rely on never acknowledging that even within acceptable heterosexual bounds any individual may be attracted to things that the others would find abhorrent. And of course there's no real reason to think any of those individuals is as carefully heterosexual as all that.

For a really, really fascinatingly personal view of gender, I highly recommend this (potentially very squicky) interview with an FTM with a self-pierced cervix. It covers a lot of stuff I've read about elsewhere, but never seen really discussed.

kiplet said...

And again I should respond at length; and again you are cheated because I am sleepy. (Though I didn’t end up seeing Mercutio; apparently, he was played as boorish, leather-jacketed ass, and it worked quite well, I am told; the same actor is also playing Caliban this season, and that juxtaposition tickles a number of related fancies. —I saw On the Razzle instead, which, wow.)

I think in general that the magical negro must die (or sacrifice their power, let’s not forget) not so much to balance any underlying racial tensions (in whatever Machiavellian fashion) as to fulfill a story-need: they are, after all, primarily, in the story, assisting with the bildung, and let’s face it: the end of such a piece must always see the scaffolding kicked away, that the protagonist might stride off, unencumbered, on their own two feet, into the sunset. (That the death of a magical negro might also sauce a weakling story with a biting something of revenge and this-time-it’s-personal is but a lagniappe.)

This is not to say that the death (or, let’s remember, voluntary disempowerment) of a magical negro can’t possibly also serve notice that the only good is dead, etc. These things can always mean more than one thing. But I don’t think death necessarily means obliteration or dissolution, and it always pays to watch where older story-structures sneak in and muck with whatever else is going on. (Though don’t trust me: I am a [mostly] straight [mostly] white boy from Alabama. I have a dog in this fight.)

(“Mostly?” Ha! What was that Jules Feiffer cartoon? “I wish I were a nonconformist like everybody else.”)

As further evidence for my apologetic argument, I’d offer up, first: the stock character of the Gruff Black Lieutenant. A staple of cop shows, they partake of the peculiar power of the magical negro in that they guide the protagonists and help to build them up; they are nominally more powerful than the protagonists, in that they are, y’know, the Boss—but they have no actual agency in the realm of the story itself. They exist as obstacles, expository founts, and occasionally plot coupons. They don’t so much die (they are staples of episodic TV shows, not movies) but they usually must admit the protagonist, though rash, is right to do this by the gut and not the book, or something. Not nearly so cleanly cut or odd as the magical negro, I think they make the bait-and-switch of the token apology dynamic a little more clear: here, partake of power; here, have some gruff lines for character—but don’t trespass on the important stuff of the story itself, which is reserved for our hot-headed white protagonist(s). —Though we could have some fun by talking then about how the father-figure is thus othered, but it’s late, and I am as I said sleepy.

Second (yes, there is a second): the Magical Wino, or Hobo, or Bum. Again, not so common nor clearly cut, but nonetheless there (more in prose, I think, and comics, than in movies or television). Not so much with the bildung, these folks, they’re usually more local color (as it were), but I think that’s the only major difference beyond the deracination. (Hmm.) But the apologetic is strongly at play: here, have power outside the norm to compensate for your lowly state; please, say something at some point to absolve me or at least make me feel less bad about the horrible crimes we’ve done to you as a class.

—I am not sure how desire plays into either of those. Though the lieutenant usually has a gun.

Eileen Joy said...

MacAllister--

first, let me apologize for the fact that my life is so incredibly busy and overwhelming at present that there is no way that I can do all three parts of "The Magical Other" series justice, and there is so much rich commentary here that, again, I apologize.

Yes, I agree [I think] that "there is no us," and in that sense, how can there ever be an "Other," right? But, at the same time, there is the way those of us who are intellectuals are able to view the world, and then there is the way everyone else views it, SO: in my mind, there is no "us" and there is therefore no "Other" [with a capital "O," anyway; it has to be admitted that there are always "others" with a small "o"--otherwise, how does one even begin to trace the delicate contours of singular, self-posessed "selves"?], but historically, the "same" vs. "Other" construct has been so practically useful that it is not possible for most of us to live outside of it. In other words, the *material* [and often violently damaging--both physical and psychic] effects of often simplistically "us vs. them" configurations are palpably real and alive, and in many different contexts, both "real world" and "academic" [although I question the supposed division between the two].

For myself, there is only one solution: a type of radical love that would seek to level all divisions, even the one between "hetero"and "homo," which is, frankly, why I coined the term "hetero-queer." I'm after a type of ontological "passivity" [following the thinking of Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit in "Forms of Being"] that would lead to a "shattering" of notions of self-possession that make communion with Others/others often impossible.

Love. Radically open and revolutionary love. Without presuppositions. Without notions of "same" or "other." Without notions.

Chris J. said...

I can't say I'm following all the nuances of this fascinating discussion. However, I do think, if you’re looking for magical queer tropes, the Robert Preston character in Victor/Victoria comes to mind. I think much of the success of the movie depends upon the way it slyly challenges the audience to assume the role, if only for a safe moment, of the sexual Other. It ain’t Aristotle, but it was an immensely popular work.