turf wars

Tuesday, 12 February 2019 07:18 am
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Warning: minor ideological rantage ensuing. If for no other reason than the first week of term, disorganised students are demanding my attention in all directions, Eskom is running random load shedding power cuts again, and I need distraction.

This is a very interesting article on the rise of TERF activism in the UK - TERFs being trans-exclusionist radical feminists. I'm familiar with what I find to be their deeply unpleasant ideologies from hanging out on Tumblr, where salvos in a TERF campaign occasionally come over my dash, in the ongoing TERF attempt to persuade (mostly young) feminists that "queer" is a slur and should not be used. (The above usually accompanied by deft rebuttals from the actual blogs I follow, who are more or less uniformly Sensible People). TERFs don't think that trans women are women, they insist on identifying them by their biologically male bodies, and have a series of frankly paranoid outrages about "male" bodies in female bathrooms and prisons, and the "erasure" of women by the inclusion of trans women in feminist debates. TERFs are, in fact, the Mrs Grundies of feminist thinking, and to my mind they personify a narrow-minded outrage that makes them horribly akin to the closed-minded frothings of the religious right.

I am a little blindsided by how angry and nauseous the whole TERF ideology makes me, it seems to prod me with pointy sticks deep in my personal organ of justice. I think TERFs are motivated by a horrible and toxic mix of rage and fear, and while rage and fear in themselves are probably a valid response to the damages enacted by patriarchal culture, what I can't forgive is the way in which TERFs choose to respond to their anger at and fear of male bodies and cultural identity by turning on the most marginal and already vulnerable people they can find who they see as being part of that male identity. They are, in fact, punching down, with considerable malice.

And their rage and fear comes with a side order of power-tripping and desire for artificially simplified discourse; they are punching down in the service of an attempt to render simple and clear-cut debates about identity and culture which are anything but. That's what the whole dog-whistling with "queer" is about: queer identity is necessarily complex, it demands recognition and celebration of identities and identifications which don't fit easily into the male/female/gay/lesbian boxes.

It's ugly and predatory, to identify an already vulnerable target and go after it with single-minded determination, but it's also blindly hypocritical. Because if women/feminists are damaged and victimised by patriarchy, how much more damaged and victimised are those women who are born into biologically male bodies, and into cultural assumptions about male identity, which make them, whether they like it or not, a part of it? If TERFs are rejecting maleness with such frothing hatred, how much stronger and more difficult is the response of a trans woman whose rejection of that "maleness" entails so much more active and instrumental a resistance of cultural labelling? Trans women deny the male body a thousand times more fiercely than any TERF with a bathroom fixation, and they go through seven colours of hell to enact that denial. Quite apart from the costs of physical transition, our culture is getting better at gender identity only very slowly, and it still encodes gender stereotypically in ways which make it difficult and painful to resist.

I like the linked article's comments about British feminism and its comparative privilege, lack of intersectionality, and links with colonialsim; it surmises that Irish and American feminists have in many ways grown beyond this absolutism because they have been forced to accommodate experiences of subject positions based on race or colonial experiences as well as gender. TERF ideology is possibly so maddening to me because it is so obliviously privileged, but that's an insight into its workings, not an excuse; above all, I find it inherently, unforgivably cruel.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
This is an absolutely fascinating article which talks about the current decline in sexual activity among young people globally. It's a thoughtful and reflective analysis, rife with stats which are very telling: increase in the average age at which young people first have sex, decline in teen pregnancies, decline in dating and marriage rates. The anecdotal reports of attitudes are also interesting - a sort of general malaise, with respondents, rather than being wildly angst-ridden about not getting laid, merely delivering a resounding "meh". The general feelings seems to be that sex, and sexual relationships, are hard work, and possibly not really worth it, and who has time anyway?

This fascinates me, if for no other reason than for over a decade now I've been teaching a segment on virtual sexuality within a third-year course on the history of the erotic, and despite consistently positive student comments about the course, have watched sign-ups drop to under half of the levels they were at when the course was first offered. I don't know if South African youth follow the same trends they do in the West and Japan, but I suspect they may, at least among the educated middle classes I see in the university context. I think it's a complex set of pressures which is giving rise to the decline, and I would imagine that general anxiety levels under our current terrible geo-political ramifications are probably co-equal causes with the rise of more abstract forms of online sex expression, porn and fanfic among them.

And the prevalence of virtual sex-substitutes is not, I think, a harbinger of doom: if nothing else, it suggests that virtual connection or virtual eroticisim can be sufficiently "real" and satisfying to the participant that they engender a reduced need to seek them out in the flesh. (I can testify to this myself. I have been single for over a decade now, and it's a comfortable state in which friends, internet interactions and fanfic embed me sufficiently in society and culture and a notional erotic that I'm not lonely, I feel connected and I really don't want or need to change anything).

More than that, though, I see this decline as having the potential to be weirdly positive, because the "meh" of relationship reactions outlined in the article must, I think, quite heavily implicate shifting gender norms and the rise of a more enlightened feminism among women. It's a sign of cultural growth, actually, for large swathes of heterosexual women to have reached the conclusion that no relationship is actually a hell of a lot better than a bad relationship. And a bad relationship is very likely to be one with one of the large swathe of male partners who have not contrived to rise above the misogynistic conditioning of their culture in order to offer something like equality of emotional labour. (The article's description of horrendous male expectations of sex learned from porn was chilling). The article mentions at one point that dating and sexual activity levels among lesbians don't, in fact, seem to have dropped in any equal sense, which seems significant.

I mean, I can see the whole post-Freudian landscape having quite healthily undermined bad relationships across the board simply because modern psychology encourages us to seek individual happiness without requiring us, as previous generations were required, to subsume our own needs to the cultural expectation of the relationship. But the fact remains that that kind of emotional self-sacrifice has always, always been more heavily demanded of women. It's almost inevitable, that relationships will decline in the face of women's realisation that by culturally accepted definitions relationships are so often bad and unfair, and particularly unfair to women. We have the tools to realise this now, and we're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it no more. Participation is, at least, something more within our control than actual male behaviour; female cultural capital has risen enough for awareness, and for women to make the decision to abdicate involvement, even if it is not yet high enough to actually change the game.

There is, of course, another level entirely on which a decline in sexual activity in young people feels potentially apocalyptic; if not Bowie's drive-in Saturday future from my subject line, it feels as though we might, in fact, be drifting into Tepper's version in Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Leaving aside genetic manipulation by benevolent-if-marginal Elder Races, a disinclination to procreate makes sense when current evidence suggests that the biosphere may not survive to support our children; our overpopulated and rapaciously destructive culture may be self-sabotaging in sheer self-defence.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Class of 16 third-year students, and only two have seen the new Star Wars. The fuck? what's with the youth of today? the movie was huge and mainstream and seen by bazillions of people, but apparently senior Humanities students are not among them. I despair. Genre-shamed by my own students. Particularly because I'm trying to teach fanfic, and it transpires that I no longer have mainstream popular texts in common with my class. They grudgingly admit enough of a passing familiarity with Avengers or Sherlock that my burbling wasn't entirely opaque. I suppose it's not technically genre-shaming because they all watch Game of Thrones, but I refuse, basically on aesthetic grounds. I am unable to admire nasty people.

I am Disgruntled. Fortunately this amazing Tumblr conversation has just made me giggle outrageously for ten minutes, because Science! in the service of Dodginess is a lovesome thing, god wot. "I have no deeper explanation for why human females can dissolve rocks with our genitals. It simply is."

I am also in a horrible fatigue slump, and am perpetually exhausted, which is achieving new heights of horrible because I'm also insomniac like whoa and dammit, which means I stagger into bed, largely incapacitated with tired, at about 9pm and then stare at the ceiling for two hours. And when I sleep, apparently I hallucinate very small stained-glass knights with lances coming through the walls. Vividly. Contemplating firing my subconscious. Apart from anything else, it's giving rise, at extremely infrequent intervals, to particularly disjointed flow-of-consciousness blog posts.

(My subject line is Bowie's "Blackstar", from his last album, which is amazing and rapidly becoming one of my favourites. It is relevant only in the most lateral and tenuous of sleep-deprived fashions).
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
For some reason the recent Garden XKCD won't load on my work computer, probably because complicated campus firewalls or something - you go to the page and all it gives you is a revolving tree silhouette with the word "LOADING" and a flashing ellipsis, with the mouseover "Relax." I thought that was the whole strip, and it was perfect - that's exactly what you do with a garden, relax and wait for everything to load.

Currently I am delighting in a random corner of my real-life container garden which is slowly and carefully loading three butternut squash plants, the result of me, in a fit of pique at having an entire tray of baby marrow seedlings eaten off at ground level by cutworm, madly planting 6 seeds from a butternut I happened to have for dinner one evening. I'm fairly useless at seeds, a 50% germination rate is bloody good by my standards, but as long as I can keep the neighbourhood tomcat from jumping on them in the course of his flee-the-garden escape route when I shout at him for stealing my cats' food and/or spraying in the passage, they seem to be doing well. In the meanwhile, the XKCD comic is growing things under lights on my home computer, although I cannot as yet persuade it to produce anything other than a row of identical boring trees. I love the way Randall Munroe's mind works, the controls for the lights are elegantly simple.

In a tangentially related note (technological replications of biological processes?), I give you Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group, because delightful. They solemnly and meticulously catalogue the taxonomical classifications of the little plastic widgets used to close bread bags.

In other news also not unentirely related to the unduly artificial mechanical replication of actual life processes, last night Machete Order brought us to re-watch Attack of the Clones. I had honestly forgotten (a) most of the movie, I clearly blanked it in sheer self-defence, and (b) how utterly terrible a film it is. Seriously: the plot sucks, the script blows, the dialogue is beyond lame and unnatural, the greenscreen is ungodly clunky, the "romance" "plot" is the unconvincing bumping together of two wooden effigies, one of them loutish, and the whole represents the utter triumph of overbudgeted CGI over reason, taste or the faintest replication of actual life. Unsurprisingly, given that it focuses on the CGI clashes of droids and clones rather than actual people, the whole thing can be summed up with "Newsflash: I don't care." Honestly, George, it takes a special level of anti-skill to make giant battles between droids, clones and Jedi knights actually boring.

We still have to endure Revenge of the Sith, although probably only when Jo gets back from AfricaBurns. Anyone know any good drinking games? I have time to train my liver up a bit...

grrr, aargh

Tuesday, 12 May 2015 02:57 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Last night was deeply annoying, because (a) lights, none, and (b) so many legs! As well as (c), residual Age of Ultron grumps.

I am narked with the City of Cape Town because they confirm a load-shedding session so much at the last minute. I checked the loadshedding page four times yesterday, and every time it was "load shedding suspended until further notice." Then they cut us off at 8pm, at the point where I'd assumed we were safe for the day, right in the middle of the first episode of Daredevil, which is a new Netflix series which is doing a slow build thing that definitely doesn't need to be arbitrarily suspended. Although, in retrospect, having to feel my way across the living room in the pitch dark was at least thematically appropriate. (I'm reserving judgement on Daredevil for the nonce, I kinda like what they're doing, it's gritty and real and Charlie Cox is marvellous, but it's currently moving very slowly and I hope they sort the pace out a tad).

"So many legs!" is a quote from Cole in Inquisition upon meeting the giant albino spider which lives under the Crestwood keep. There was a sudden, huge and inexplicable spider in the corner of the bathroom last night, just above the shower. Arachnids are clearly evil because they choose to manifest (a) in the moment when the room is illuminated by flickering candlelight which most efficiently conceals them in shadows until you're really close, and (b) in the room in which you are most likely to be wandering around naked, and thus unprotected from arachnid multi-hairy-legged scuttling by any form of civilised armour. Bastards. Having stripped completely and wandered towards the shower, I spotted the spider, thought, "Hell, no", backed away slowly and went to bed unwashed, shutting the bathroom door behind me so the wretched thing couldn't infiltrate the house. It was gone this morning, hopefully out the window rather than into a dark bathroom corner from whence it can more unexpectedly pounce. I am a wimp, but somehow it all seems more horrible when you're trying to eject spiders without the benefit of electricity.

I have worked out why Age of Ultron annoyed me so much. It's not actually because of the final, headcanon-ruining upshot of the story. It's because absolutely none of the narrative and character arcs which led to that outcome felt earned, deserved or properly explored. I could adjust my headcanons if the film gave me any bloody grist whatsoever to my imaginative mill. But it doesn't: the romance isn't substantiated, the death isn't justified in any thematic sense, the departures are glossed over, the whole thing feels like random events cobbled together randomly, rather than an actual plot. Joss can do so much better, and I tend to agree with this article, which argues that the Marvel meta-marketing drive has constrained the director to the point where he is completely hamstrung in trying to give the story any sort of satisfying shape.

Also, while Joss Whedon is definitely still my master now, I can't help thinking that his particular brand of feminism, which resides mostly in strong female characters, is in a weird sort of way slightly out of date. He was groundbreaking at the time with Buffy and Firefly, but levels of feminist awareness have overtaken him - simple strong female characters simply don't cut it any more, we need a more pervasive critique which the Marvel straitjacket certainly doesn't permit. (See: leaked CEO email giving a demonstration of beautifully spurious logic: bad female-led superhero movies bombed, therefore all female-led superhero movies are bad and will bomb. To which we answer, succinctly and pointedly, "Ben Afflek's Daredevil". Because really.)

In other news, my mutant foot has died down to its usual shape and is only rather red and mottled. Antibiotics and two days with my feet up have settled its hash onetime quick. Now all I have to deal with is the nausea occasioned by the antibiotics...

never make passes

Friday, 27 March 2015 03:30 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Yesterday, as I wandered vaguely around the faculty office, a colleague bumped into me, did a double take, and said, "I like your glasses ... Um, have you always worn glasses?" This was a little disconcerting. I have incredibly bad eyesight (-8.5 in one eye, -3.5 in the other) and gave up on contact lenses about a decade ago, as they actively irritate my eyes (Apparently I have little bumps on the inside of my eyelid. Go figure.) As a result I have worn glasses continuously for as long as she's known me, which is for over two years now, during which time she's occupied the office next to mine. They've simply never registered.

What she's responding to is my new glasses, which I wore for the first time yesterday. I've hitherto gone for fairly minimal sort of frames which more or less disappear on my face - thin metal rims, small lenses. I can't do that any more, because the prescription is strong enough and the resulting lenses thick enough that they can't go into narrow-rimmed frames, and I no longer have the disposable income necessary to pay the R6000-odd additional cost for having the lenses thinned. It's hipster thick frames, or nothing. We managed, by dint of trying on half the frames in the shop and several the nice man dug out from the back room, to make the lenses a bit larger by using a cats-eye shape, which cuts out the really thick outer bit, and which I incidentally like rather a lot.

This was also, however, a philosophical decision for which I probably blame several years of intensive therapy. I've always minimised my glasses before, because they make me feel frumpy and unattractive. But hipster frames are very in at the moment, they're all over the media and it's rubbed my nose in the fact that they actually work. They make a statement - yes, these are glasses, aren't they cool? as opposed to please-pretend-I'm-not-wearing-them. I wandered into the optician determined to go for larger glasses with thicker frames and damn the torpedoes, and so I have. This augurs a certain degree of increased self-confidence from two years ago, when I ordered the last pair, and I am modestly proud of this. So, presumably, is my therapist.

I would post a selfie, but really.

still giggling

Friday, 11 April 2014 10:09 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
So, remember the Chris Evans version of 2048 I posted? a few days back? The one which caused certain of my lady friends to go "That game you posted? It's evil! there went Tuesday!", causing me to say, "Well, I did warn you" with some complacence? Celeb versions of 2048 are a Thing right now - I also recommend the one with Benedict Cumberbatch and otters. But absolutely my favourite development in this is the following sequence:

  1. Copperbadge, prominent Tumblerite who I follow because he writes good fanfic, invents the Robert Downey Jr 2048 version, which starts with ickle baby RJDs and progressively ages them as you meld them. Which is probably an obscure metaphor for something, I'm not sure what.
  2. The internet happily melds RDJs for a while.
  3. Robert Downey Jr posts the Copperbadge version on his Facebook page with a comment to the effect of "Damn you, Copperbadge!"
  4. Copperbadge posts a "Holy shit he namedropped me!" comment to Tumblr.
  5. Tumblr melts down.

I love the internet. But its ability to create the illusion that the illusion of the celebrity/fan reciprocal relationship is an actual celebrity/fan relationship, while enormously entertaining to the onlooker, is bloody dangerous. Contemplating the nested and reciprocal validations in that little exchange above is making me slightly dizzy as well as hugely amused.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)

I have, what with one thing and another, been reading Coriolanus recently. Oh, all right, the one thing or another is the appearance on our local Nouveau movie circuit of the film of Tom Hiddlestone's recent run in the play in London, which earned rave reviews from a lot of people who weren't actually drooling Loki fans. (It also earned rave reviews from drooling Loki fans, although the presence of Tom Hiddlestone stripped to the waist and bathed in blood may have been partially implicated in the response. Also, massive homoerotic subtext. These days, show me a text which doesn't have a massive homoerotic subtext and I will politely remove the earplugs and blinkers you unaccountably appear to be wearing. We live in a deeply repressed society.)

Anyway. Shakespeare is, of course, a highly pleasing thing to one who is guilty, as I am, of a serious addiction to language. I don't know the play at all, and have been happily skip-reading through it in preparation for seeing the film. Conclusions: (a) Shakespeare is still the good stuff in terms of linguistic high, (b) Coriolanus is kind of an arrogant dick, and (c) wow, but is this a topical play right now. The first scene entails Roman senators interacting with a mob of commoners who are all agitating about overpriced grain and Senator privilege, and features a citizen ranting about senators in a speech which made me sit up and go "Whut?"
Care for us! True, indeed! They ne'er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there's all the love they bear us.

This, children, is the contemporary USA. Or, in some lights, the UK. This is the particular flavour of rampant and unchecked capitalism which characterises the Western world, where the gap between the obscenely rich and the poor widens daily, where governance repeatedly privileges corporations over people and bails out banks. And where world powers make war because it's profitable. (See this interesting article on the change in US policy over the last few years). Human nature apparently doesn't change much. That Shakespeare, he knew.

Of course, I still haven't seen Coriolanus despite all efforts to do so - we had tickets for last night, but arrived in the Waterfront only to be told that the scheduled load shedding power cut for the evening would cut the movie off half an hour before the end, and strand us in a darkened, zombie-apolcalyptic mall. We went and had tea and cake instead, which was rather pleasant, but not nearly as highbrow as the intended evening. Tom Hiddlestone notwithstanding. Ster-Kinekor owes us a replacement viewing, though, so we may yet get to see the damned thing. If the power cuts permit.

My subject line is not only Simon and Garfunkel, it's a direct quote from a Daily Voice billboard this morning, which made me laugh rather a lot.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Things Which Feel Odd:

  1. Climbing back into your driver's seat after picking the car up from the car wash. Someone else has driven it. The seat and the rear-view mirror are in the wrong place, and it inevitably takes me about three traffic lights to adjust them so they feel right. But the whole car has a strange air of the indefinably alien. Something's different, but you can't tell what it is. It isn't your space any more. (Although it's certainly cleaner).
  2. Spending a happy half hour noodling around on the piano (currently I'm trying to play Arcade Fire, a project doomed to failure owing to their texture fetish, which means you actually need six hands, twelve people and a violin to have any stab at reproducing the sound) and then trying to type. I both type and play with some facility, fast, and without looking at my hands, and apparently cross-wiring happens. My fingers keep trying to do arpeggios instead of QWERTY. I have to consciously rein them in for a bit before all the right circuits click in. Very odd feeling.
  3. Christmas in July. Particularly when we're even more disorganised than usual, and it was actually Christmas in July in August in September in October. That is, last night. Roast chicken and ham and all the trimmings and Jo did barszcz and uszka for starters (garlicky Polish beet soup with mushroom dumplings, for both of which I have an unholy passion) and I made chocolate berry trifle (because Christmas pudding is of the divvil), and we ate and drank too much and pulled crackers and exchanged ridiculous presents in large quantities, and listened to Annie Lennox sing English Christmas carols. It feels odd and wrong, though, because it's all the good bits of Christmas, and none of its socially-mandated unpleasant ones. No enormous awkward obligatory extended family jamborees with added fighting and guilt trips, or expensive present expectations which entail battling the consumerist hordes through acres of tinsel and product-pushing. Although I did go forth and buy myself an actual Blu-Ray home theatre system this morning, to replace our almost-defunct hi-fi, which was a conscious decision to spend my November bonus early and thus was almost Christmas-shoppy. Except for me, not other people. Feels odd.

Subject line from Arcade Fire's "Wasted Hours", which is for the most part not actually thematically appropriate at all but was on my mind and is a gentle, wistful, beautiful thing. Also, I think googling how to spell "barszcz" has infected me, I keep trying to blockquote this paragraph by typing "blokqvote".
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
lizzie bennet diariesI'm rather late on the bandwagon with this - I've seen mention of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on the web over the last year or so, but what with the urgent need to read all the Avengers fanfiction, never really got around to watching them. (Apparently internet distraction time is finite rather than infinitely expandable. Which, given the infinite expandability of the internet is something of a problem. Oops.) Today I am wandering around in a bit of a daze, bumping into things, because I was up until after midnight fascinatedly watching a modernised Lizzie Bennet deal with Darcy revelations and Wickham fallout, and am consequently somewhat short on sleep. I'm at around episode 90 out of 100 (it's just finished, making this a good time to leap on board for people prone to my need for instant narrative gratification). It was significantly difficult to drag myself away in the small hours.

The Lizzie Bennet diaries are two things: (a) a beautifully-realised and highly intelligent modernisation of Pride and Prejudice via social media, and (b) proof positive that Jane Austen still has a fan following - still speaks to people, even modern internet-savvy people whose lives revolve around phones and tweets and job opportunities rather than marriage and social class. The show consists of 100 2-5 minute weblogs from Lizzie herself, with extensions into Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr accounts and a couple of offshoot video blogs (Lydia, mostly), and a fan following who interacts with the characters as though they're real. It strips down Austen's narrative to show only central characters, while peripheral characters such as Mr and Mrs Bennet or Catherine de Bourgh are represented by quick (and often very funny) theatrical impersonations by Lizzie and various hapless assistants. It's a show about social media on several levels, not just in its own transmission formats, but in the daily life and concerns of its protagonists. At the heart of it is an intrinsically conscious equation between Austen's social awareness and social media awareness, an insistence that culture is culture regardless of its technological paradigm.

I love and frequently re-read Pride and Prejudice, and I love this adaptation: it's funny and sensitive, and above all beautifully acute in its awareness of the central themes of the book, and the way in which they transcend historical context. The equivalences the show makes for Charlotte's pragmatic acceptance of Mr Collins, for Wickham's desecration of Lydia, for the whole socio-economic edifice of Pemberly and Darcy's wealth, beautifully encapsulate the spirit of the original while cheerfully updating its letter. (Their version of Mr Collins is sheer genius, both in concept and in execution. Also, obviously Darcy is a hipster. Suspenders. She says darkly.)

Where the series most blows me away, though, is in their treatment of the Wickham/Lydia plot. I was a bit dubious about how they were going to handle it given contemporary sexual freedoms, but updated, and with Lydia's greatly increased interiority, it becomes heartbreakingly cruel. It fascinates me, that the trauma and heartache displayed on video in this version are such an exact and faithful match to the trauma and heartbreak (although more restrained in expression) in Austen's original. She wrote about people, how they love and betray and survive, and above all how they agonise about their appearance in the eyes of the world. Even more so given the power of our technology, so do we.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I blush to admit my slight obsession with the TomKat meltdown, which is really no more than the continuation of my obsession with TomKat, and before that with Tom Cruise himself. This is not, I hasten to clarify, any sort of fangirl he's-so-attractive sort of thing: I can't stand the man, and my interest is more of a sort of horrified fascination with the spectacle he presents. Twiddling my thumbs in traffic this morning, I came to an interesting realisation: like really quite ridiculous amounts of things in my life, this particular urge is also a manifestation of purely academic interests. (Case in point, David Bowie, who's about self-conscious genre play. At least partially. Shut up.)

I do a lot of work with metafiction. Metafiction is characterised, in the words of highly useful critic Patricia Waugh, as fiction "which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality." It's one of the favoured techniques of postmodernists, that sort of "ha ha this is a book not the real world" with which they step outside their own text to comment on it. Tom Cruise doesn't quite do that, but the fervour and intensity with which he constructs himself as an icon at any given moment borders on parody, creating an artefact - a "star" - whose self-evident falsity is intrinsic to its function. That is - he doesn't present "star" and try to naturalise the identity, he tries to naturalise the performance. Tom Cruise is never not performing Tom Cruise, and the non-existence of a genuine Tom Cruise is so taken for granted that its absence permeates the performance. And the performativity of Tom Cruise takes for granted that we acquiesce in the performance - we relate to it as performance, a text, not as a reality. He's also a simulacrum: he is a performance of a self which goes beyond simply obscuring or replacing a reality to the point where it is not related to a reality at all. Dear Baudrillard, how we miss him.

At any rate, the gossip-column coverage of the TomKat breakdown has been affording me much innocent joy: Katie Holmes seems to have blindsided him utterly with the divorce, leaving him groping for an appropriate response to perform. Even better, it's been such a kick in the teeth to the whole Scientology schtick - she has escaped! because she fears your weird cult! because of what it'll do to her daughter! and she's being superbly tactical about the whole thing. Scientology evokes in me a sort of combination of fear and derision, so it's nice to see the creepy-control-freak-omniscience undercut.

The whole thing has also given me absolutely my favourite quote about Scientology of all time ever:
This is what I find hilarious about Scientology even though it’s obviously scary as sh-t: the entire operation sounds like a game you would have invented in your parents’ basement playing with friends back in grade school where the object - to get to Level Supremeness of The Power Destiny - was to hop up the stairs on one foot, blindfolded, with one hand doing the Spock sign and the other holding an egg, while reciting Twas The Night Before Christmas because Miss Green made us memorise it for the holiday revue.
Courtesy of Lainey Gossip.

taking it personally

Monday, 2 July 2012 01:29 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Circumstances of late have conspired to give me a sudden need to be Randomly Feminist. This is mostly about a confluence of recent articles bouncing hither and yon across the 'net, but last night I also dreamed I had a massive argument with Tony Stark about my complete refusal to wear high heels, so there's that.

  • This is Bruce Sterling's Alan Turing Centenary speech, which boingboing linked to in a general "hooray Bruce Sterling Seminal SF Writer" sort of way, thereby causing me momentary insecurity and confusion. Because, while I kinda see what Sterling is trying to do there in terms of his address to Turing's marginal identity and the complexity of identity in the context of the Turing test, I also spent two days going "Huh?" and trying to work out what I was missing that boingboing obviously got. Boingboing is usually pretty sussed on gender issues, and it weirded me out that they linked without comment when I found Sterling's argument so problematical in its unthinking assumption of pretty reactionary ideas about gender identity.

    On the whole, I think I blame boingboing for not being more alert. You can't ask the question “can a computational system be a woman?” without first asking the question "what is a woman?", i.e. addressing the issues of stereotype and patriarchy and acculturation over biology and what have you. This is, I think, what Sterling is really trying to do, in suggesting that you can't expect machine consciousness to develop without lived experience, but he signally fails to do it in any sort of way which shows awareness of his own limited sense of "feminine identity". The paragraph which really got my goat:

    The two women are going to feel deep sympathy and solidarity with this tortured, alien creature who so much wants to be a woman, while having zero chance of ever having a woman’s lived experience. This entity is a woman who will never be beloved, was never a daughter, sister, wife or mother. This woman never nurtured anyone, never had so much as a pet cat. She never danced, never sang a song, never felt the sun on her skin, could not comfort a weeping child, could not weep at the graveside of her parents, never got a smile, a compliment, never saw her own face in the mirror…
    Because clearly women are all about emotion and nurture and beauty and mirrors and an experience of marginality. Only women are wounded, and might therefore empathise with a subject machine intelligence. And more horribly, only women have "identity" which is separated in some sense from intelligence or cognition - i.e. highlighting the importance of identity in cognition is done by talking about female identity, not male, because male cognitive identity is naturalised. In his efforts to problematise the idea of identity, Sterling basically re-enacts the "men do intelligence, women do emotion" trope as an extremely troubling binary assumption.

    And who the hell is Sterling to start defining "a woman's lived experience"? Why is a woman's experience necessarily about dancing and mirrors and comforting children? Can't our experience also encompass joy in simultaneous equations and running a business and driving fast cars? The world at large has never paid attention to the "woman" part of Turing's question because it's either, if you address it as Sterling does, a bloody stupid question, or, if you address it properly, it requires that you identify a machine intelligence by its ability to imbibe, digest and construct itself via about two thousand years of global culture and power relations shaping biological function as they impact on its moment of creation as a consciousness. Which may have been Turing's point, and is certainly the point Sterling is trying to make, but I don't think Sterling actually gets why it's such a tricky one, or why his own blithe assumptions about identity (and gender and hormones, oy vey) are so incomplete.

    Also, to assume that a gay man is necessarily either "feminine" or "effeminate" is quite horrifyingly unthinking. And appears to have no real point. Honestly, as [livejournal.com profile] pumeza and Confluency pointed out on Twitter, the main problem with his speech is that its argument is completely incoherent.

  • So, to balance things out a bit, have Nora Ephron's 1996 Wellesley commencement speech. Which kicks butt, or more specifically, stomps blinkered post-feminism righteously into the mud. By way of an antidote paragraph:

    One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don't take it personally, but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn't serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you—whether or not you believe in abortion.
    When a highly-regarded science fiction writer, a member of a usually thoughtful and politically aware group, makes stupid stereotypical assumptions about gender identity, it's a kick in the damned teeth, is what it is. Kick back. Also, mourn Nora Ephron. She knew.

(Edited 2/07 to clarify a couple of points in which my own incoherence was annoying me.)
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I've just run an ongoing orientation workshop, which entailed being in the venue early to set up data projectors and what have you. (We insert the usual ritual cursing aimed at my Cherished Institution's classroom "facilities" unit, which mostly facilitates frustration and despair). While I was waiting for the start of the session students were doing the usual student thing, which is to trickle in gradually (this process takes place from about ten minutes before the start of the lecture until about ten minutes after it's under way). I was struck, though, by the ongoing silence in the venue even as the numbers built. Surely students should be chatting to each other while they wait? They certainly have no problem chatting during the lecture itself.

And, of course, the answer is because almost every student is sitting in their seat in the modern attitude of techno-prayer, hands folded, head bowed, thumbs working busily as they send SMSes or read their email or whatever. It's visually quite a striking trend, looking up at the raked seats. Also, almost every student walks into the venue with their phone in their hand, presumably because they've been texting as they walk. Cellphones and their ilk have become communication and identity prosthetics, an integral part of both daily function and of self-construction. I am, because I text. Existence is only proven and affirmed in virtual space. And they say cyberspace isn't real. Hah.

I seem to have missed the cellphone thing, it's an occasionally handy tool rather than an integral part of my functioning, but I think the internet is absolutely a prosthetic self to me. I suspect I've never acquired the cellphone habit because both my work and my home paradigms are fairly sedentary - if I had the kind of job where I was more than ten metres away from my computer at any given time, I'd probably be giving my thumbs repetitive strain injury with the best of them. I become very, very twitchy if internet-deprived for more than a few hours.

But I mourn what we've lost, which is time. Time in the sense of extended focus, communication in anything other than bite-sized chunks. My students write increasingly terrible essays as the years go by, because you don't learn the skills of sustained argument and marshalling the logical flow of a large chunk of text by reading instant messages. And this is why they argue that blogging is dying, and maybe it is. No time, no attention to spare. TL;DR. All those words.

I like words, and I think they're happier in stupendous, horizon-filling herds.


Thursday, 19 January 2012 11:20 am
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It is a strange and disturbing thing, to live in an age where corporate lobbyists in another country have the power to potentially restrict net freedoms across the world. You can't say that SOPA won't affect us on the tip of Africa if it's passed. The blogs I read, the information sources I use, even the hosting of some of my own sites, is in the US. Globalisation means we're all interconnected. The activists and net-heads and ordinary people who are doing protest blackouts and phoning their representatives and trying to stop this, are striking a blow for me. I just wish I could do more than simply watch helplessly, and hope.

the operative word

Sunday, 3 July 2011 07:20 am
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Sydney has a very egalitarian attitude to opera. Far from being a bastion of snooty elitism, the Sydney Opera House seems to be a rocking local/tourist hangout, filled to the brim, of a fine winter's evening, with chattering crowds hanging out at the harbourside bars just under the iconic sails. The slightly more formally dressed opera crowd mingle quite cheerfully with the beer-swilling, jeans-wearing tourists. It's all pleasingly eclectic, its air of good-humoured relaxation exemplified neatly by our waiter, who had about seven inverted wineglasses slung through the belt on the back of his waistcoat.

When you approach the opera house by ferry the silhouette, by now the stuff of cliché, looks all ethereal and floaty, like the pictures. One puff of wind and you expect to see the whole thing up sticks and drift out to sea with a stately grace, like a Spanish galleon. Up close, and particularly inside, though, the thing has a sort of a brutal feel, all giant soaring concrete arches and stone, solidly rooted to its peninsula. It's an amazing space, and an amazing history of construction, rife with visions, personalities, cost overruns and hair-tearing moments of "this thing can't be built!" The act of faith to keep going was something extraordinary. The internal theatre and concert spaces are also extraordinary - beautifully designed, and very neatly finangled to give the necessary wing and set storage space under rather than next to them, as dictated by the strange shapes of the external shell. (We took the guided tour, it was fascinating).

The opera itself was a bit weird as an experience; it transpires that I was the only serious opera buff in the group of colleagues who went, and half of them got bored and left at intermission. Cappriccio is a bit of an unfortunate introduction to opera, being an extremely cerebral and meta-level exploration of whether words or music are more important as art forms, but it's frequently witty and the music, while a bit vague and formless at times, has moments of enormous beauty. However, the colleague who booked managed to get us into cheap seats where we couldn't actually see the surtitle strip, which means that we only really had access to half of the words/music debate, rendering it one-sided and curiously moot. It was beautifully staged and sung, though, and I'm utterly glad I went.

In other news, this lurgi is at the well-known "almost accidentally faint while looking at dugong" stage. I need to stay off my feet for a few days. On the upside, I also met a platypus.
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I like Melbourne a lot; its buildings are eclectic and vibey, its atmosphere is decorously festive, and its people are very friendly. Also, half its architects are Cthulhu cultists. Fact. I counted one tribute to Cthulhu, one silver Yog Sothoth on the side of a skyscraper, and more non-euclidian angles than you could shake a stick at. The hotel we stayed at was considerably more plushly comfortable than the perfectly adequate Brisbane one, and had escaped the fatal tendency to decorate in white and oatmeal. The only black mark against it is that my techno-jinx apparently escaped yesterday morning, and took down the hotel internet. Since Sid is still rampaging and I'm fairly dead, internet withdrawal is at this stage an entirely unnecessary additional symptom.

Melbourne University was closer to Cape Town in feel, older buildings, a less corporate feel to the welcome, but they're a bloody good university and are doing fascinating work. Their people are also lovely, what's with this? I refuse to believe that all Australian academics are sweetness and light all the time. I suspect a plot.

I also like Melbourne because it has lovely botanical gardens filled with Indian mynah birds, who have the ability to make the most extraordinary range of sounds - clicks, trills, whistles, pops. liquid gurgles. I want one. I could probably teach it to imitate an expresso machine. Also, the Victoria National Art Gallery had a phenomenal exhibition on Viennese art and design from the early 1900s, including paintings and posters and furniture and jewellery and, occasionally, bits of buildings, and covering artists like Kilmt and Hoffman. Amazing stuff. Incredible aesthetic. As a bonus, the front of the gallery has its entire giant glass window covered with a thin film of falling water in beautiful, meditative patterns, before which I lost myself for about half an hour. I love falling water.

We are now in Sydney, with, thank FSM, the weekend off, as I'm more than somewhat dead. We have, alas, taken a sharp nosedive in hotel quality, and are tending to the minimalist and threadbare. The walls are thin, the decor isn't, the kettle plug took me twenty minutes of swearing to plug in, and there's no power point for my netbook without unplugging the clock. If, however, the bed supports my weight, I shall be able to at least defer my complaints.

This is Melbourne, though. See? non-Euclidian angles, and slimy green bulbous bits. Perverse.

gotta dance!

Monday, 13 December 2010 05:12 pm
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Movie club last night, this theme mine, and it finally settled out at "Movies about dance under extreme weather conditions": Singing in the Rain and White Nights. Secondary theme: conceptual whiplash. Also, Really Good Seared Rare Beef Fillet On Rolls, which seems to be establishing itself as another recurring motif in these evenings.

I'd forgotten how much fun Singing in the Rain is; how much of it is slapstick (mostly courtesy of Donald O'Connor, who suffers from an intriguing combination of hyperactivity and a rubber face), and how incredibly, incurably self-aware and ironic the whole thing is - about musicals, about film-making, about acting. It's not so much a musical as a commentary on musicals, which I think accounts for some of the more over-the top elements - the hamming, the goofiness, the extended, excessive musical numbers wedged into the plot at the drop of a hat belonging to the faint shadow of an excuse. It also made me realise that I've been spoiled by Fred Astaire, who is an accomplished dancer to an extent which makes Gene Kelly look rather sloppy. But it was a hugely fun watch, and sent all three of us wandering around thereafter singing "Singing in the Rain" joyously and largely unconsciously. I'm still doing it.

White Nights is an altogether different kettle of fish, assuming they're depressive Russian fish with dancers' muscles and half-assed political pretensions. It's a truly weird movie which I cannot actually say is "good" on any meaningful level, but which has managed to haunt me all day with its images, sequences and oppressive atmosphere. I wanted to re-watch it because the only thing I remember about it from my schooldays (I think I may have seen in the theatre with my mother when it came out, which was, whoa, 1985) was that incredible, blissful, unbelievable sequence with Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov doing a sort of modern dance/ballet/tap fusion in perfect step despite completely different body styles, in an empty practice hall, for no other reason than the hell of it. To me this is what dance is about - mutuality, synchronisation, the sheer pleasure of moving in harmony. It's the stylised and publicly acceptable embodiment of good sex. This film is scripted in giant, half-formed clichés; it has "Russian Communism Bad!" written all over it in letters of fire; its actually very good cast struggles against chronically poor pacing and the uneasy mixing of dramatic tropes with those of a spy thriller and a dance movie - but its dance sequences are pure joy. Neither Hines nor Baryshnikov are any good at all as actors when you give them actual words to say, but they communicate incredibly powerfully when all they have to do is move. Also, bonus points for the most deliriously decontextualised performance of Porgy and Bess I have ever seen.

I think White Nights may have weirded jo&stv out far more than the classic musical I was afraid they'd hate, but I'm very glad I saw both films again. Now I'm going to go home and load up that dance sequence, just because I can. In fact, here it is now. I love the discipline here, the mutuality, despite the fact that the body language is poles apart - Hines all loose-limbed and floppy, Baryshnikov perfectly controlled, but with the unbelievably evocative power which only a top-flight, classically trained dancer can impart to steps which are, technically speaking, slumming it.

And then I'm going to watch my entire Fred Astaire collection. While regretting, with every fibre of my being, that I stopped taking ballroom dance classes, because people flying with their feet on the ground is beautiful to watch, but it's better if you can do it yourself.
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Oh, lord. South Africa apparently feels the need to leap on the broody, glittery Twilight bandwagon and produce vampire movies of its own, presumably on the principle that if District 9 can make a roaring success out of South Africanising genre films, so can anyone. And thus we rejoice in the possession of Eternity, which I know about because a marketing email popped up in my campus inbox this morning. (And what's with that? are they spamming local universities, or was it a pin-pointedly accurate hit on someone who teaches vampire movies to SA students? if the latter, I darkly suspect that someone I taught is on the production team.)

Um. I am actually torn between "this doesn't look terrible" on sheer production values, and "this looks terrible" in terms of pretty much everything else. From the limited synopsis/trailer info this isn't really Twilight, it's more the sensibility of Blade or Underworld or even Angel, although this last may be only because they seem to be adhering to the "lame and his hair sticks up" trope rather more fannishly than is strictly necessary. (See poster). But any of the above simply means that, unlike District 9 and pretty much as usual, SA is coming to the blockbuster clichés a decade late and a dollar short. This is done. This is done done done to a crispy done turn in a hot oven for far too long. It's dried out and unappetising. Urban setting, check. Broody vampires with guns, check. Looking for love, even1. Goth babes, check. Vampire power struggles, check. We can walk in sunlight, check. If it wants to be the vampire District 9, it's missed the whole, central, amazing point of the film, which was that it didn't just adopt the tropes, it adapted genre tropes to the SA setting, illuminating and refreshing both setting and tropes thereby.

I may be maligning this movie horribly on insufficient information, but neither synopsis nor trailer seem to suggest any attempt whatsoever to make this a South African vampire movie rather than a vampire movie simply set in Joburg. Vampires are about power; power in South Africa is inextricably about race. Almost all the vampires seem to be white. What's with that? is the film doing that simply because the stereotype says vampires are pale, or are they actually going to examine their assumptions there? are vampires the ultimate colonial power? what about African legends of supernatural monsters with affinity for blood or night? where's the impundulu? the asanbosam? is this building up into a postcolonial rant? aargh, it is. My department has infected me.

I am disappointed in the preliminary way in which this film presents itself. I have low expectations of originality or interest. I may watch it when it comes out, but I'll be seriously surprised if there's any substance here.

1 I recently came to a sudden awareness about vampires and their love-lives (while watching, naturally, The Vampire Diaries). It's perfectly simple, really. Being bitten by a vampire clearly arrests your emotional development completely at the point at which you were chomped. The world is full of 300-year-old vampire adolescents because they were all 17 when they were bitten, and they haven't advanced any. Clearly the teen hormones are still seething around their systems and neutralising the effects of several centuries of actual experience, leading to tumultuous world-ending love affairs, abysmal communication skills and a tendency to emo brooding. It explains everything.

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It's not surprising that I hate going to the dentist, everyone hates going to the dentist. Having someone else poke around inside your mouth is an uncomfortably intimate sort of thing even without the pain and the grinding noises and the horrible little supersonic whines of the drills. But I really hate going to the oral hygienist, in whose chair I've just spent an ungodly half an hour. I'm very rigorous about brushing my teeth, but her exertions make me feel as though I've been caught out living in a filthy house with an unmade bed. And she always guilt trips me about flossing.

Flossing is the curse of modern Western civilisation. Who really flosses, anyway? It's the perfect millstone around our neck, compounded of a horrible constellation of impulses - health, beauty, self-discipline, inconvenience, guilt, pain, boredom. I'm very bad at remembering to do it because to me it feels as though it's about beauty: it suggests that I should be aspiring to shiny white toothpaste-advertisement teeth, and I mentally classify it under the same heading as wearing make-up or blow-drying my hair. These activities nark me off not just because they're about superficial ideas of beauty, but because they demand that I take time pandering to them. Life's too short to spend half an hour every morning blow-drying, making yourself up, and flossing.

Of course, this is utterly wrong. Flossing isn't just about shiny white Tom Cruise teeth, it's about preventing plaque build-up and therefore about reduced fillings and healthier teeth, insert dental infomercial here, and less time in the dentist's chair in the long run. I'm perfectly aware of this, and therefore my time with the oral hygienist is nicely balanced between resentment, pain, guilt and self-loathing, with a side order of Herodotus's crocodile (little tooth-cleaning bird in my mouth! crunch!) and my heels lifting several inches off the chair in sheer muscular tension. She's right. I should floss. But I probably won't.

Last Night I Dreamed I threw over this admin job and emigrated to Nicaragua, where an unspecified nice man had promised me and a bunch of other people new jobs, which turned out to be in (surprise!) university admin. At some stage I was sleeping in a sleeping bag out on a hillside somewhere, and woke up with the dawn to find myself surrounded by the beautiful, half-tamed jaguars which belonged to the resistance movement.
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Hooray, working at home today! Clearly it's time for a celebratory wol. We haven't had one in weeks, so let's have two.

  1. Courtesy of Confluency and a diverse trail of re-tweets, How to draw an owl. Amusingly cynical, and a lovely drawing.

  2. Edward Lear. I teach nonsense poetry to my second-year class, largely to their bemused bafflement, but I persevere on the grounds that everyone needs a Jumblie sooner or later, and besides, you can slide Saussure and signification in under the guise of nonsense theory. Recent interesting class discussions have revolved around "The Owl and the Pussycat", and oh my god I had to type that four times before it was anything other than "The Wol and the Pussycat", which is a drastically anachronistic mixing of kiddielit paradigms.

    I love this piece of poetry - it has a gentle, whimsical, dreamy rhythm which I remember from my parents reciting it to me, and which I rediscovered with huge joy when I could barely read. But, leaving aside all the weirdness of inter-species marriage between predators, have you ever noticed how strangely subversive the gender roles are in the story? Particularly given the stereotypes of Victorian sexual identity - dominant male, submissive female - it's quite iconoclastic that the owl and the cat are never definitively gendered, and their roles and depictions shift all over the show.

    The owl's initial role seems masculine, the troubador who sings courtly-style love-songs to the cat while accompanying itself on "a small guitar"; the cat is "beautiful". But if you look at the first drawing:

    - the cat is quite dominantly in control of the boat, and that tail is oddly phallic. In the next verse the owl is "elegant" and its singing "charmingly sweet", both of which represent feminine qualities in the average Victorian register, so the genders have flipped. The artwork echoes the flip: in the second picture the cat remains dominant, taller and sterner-looking and with big masculine chest, although oddly it's the shorter owl with its head bowed which offers the ring, reversing the usual marriage ceremony roles:

    In the third the roles are reversed again, taller/dominant "male" owl and slightly submissive-looking "female" cat:

    The final, haunting image of unity - "hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon" - is thus peculiarly subversive of Victorian gender identities, power relationships and sexual orientations. These creatures could be anything. The point is that they're happy together. Hooray for Edward Lear and queer theory wols!


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