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The Oasis of Now.

3 Aug

I wrote this essay for a seminar about democracy back in the spring, pretty well on a whim, once it became reasonably clear there wasn’t to be an Indian summer for the JNU protests. The midterm was a far more earnest affair about Laclau and Modi and Real Politics, and I’m sure my professor will be very grateful if you can enlighten her about what any of this has to do with democracy (in my defense, she assigned the Derrida and the Benjamin and it’s really all their fault.) She seemed to like it though, and it continues to amuse me, and it is sort of a companion to “Map of Lost Longings” if only in my own head. I was going to publish it, but I realized that I’m not done thinking it, not yet. Which means, naturally, that bogey was yanked away from her happy holiday. (It is far, far, far longer than Map, maybe move on now?) Anyway, onward. Oh, also, spoiler (?) alerts for the first nine seasons of the new Who. I haven’t seen the tenth yet, but I’m madly curious about the Return to Gallifrey.

The Prosthesis of the Other.

If you are looking for me,
I am beyond nowhere

—“The Oasis of Now” by  Sohrab Sepehri, translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati.

“I only have one language; it is not mine” begins Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin. A few pages later, he heightens (and arguably dissolves) the paradox into an antinomy: “We only ever speak one language—we never speak only one language.” Perhaps it is the verb that makes the second observation seem more quotidian than the first; it troubles my categories less: I speak in many tongues, but I express only myself. So long as the ipseity of “I”— a speaking-thinking-knowing subject—remains undisturbed, that’s an easy claim to accept.

What does it even mean, though, to “have” a language?

Treating language like a possession entails breaching the boundary between words and things, an unsettling provocation for anyone trained within the assumptions of a certain (mostly modern) rationality. To own a language is to exert a claim over a shared reality, an assertion that is both intimate and violent, and anything but natural. That is, I think, Derrida’s point: there is terror in language—“soft, discreet, glaring” (23)—and highlighting that terror points to the processes of historical and colonial usurpation that make more material hegemonies possible.  I speak, I have, the language I am given; I am trapped within the language that allows me passage, that makes my truths heard and hearable, inasmuch as I survive within the only history that makes me inevitable. Language makes reality credible and legible, and so makes reality itself.

morning-sun_hopper

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper.

I inhabit a world made by language and by the promises that it extracts. But what if I didn’t? What if I could slip, magically and at will, across idioms, making them legible to myself even as I remain a cipher to them? What sort of being can traverse, but not transcend, the trap of wandering meaning? What if I lived, precisely, within the “incommunicable” that Khatibi identifies: lost in the translation between worlds? Would such a chimerical, alchemical figure even possess an “I” to speak from? Is that the bargain, then, that the price of having the impossible, universal language—and thus the capacity to narrate a universal history—is to be deprived of a stable self? Is that the only sort of creature that isn’t destined to write, but instead writes their own destiny?

It was in search of this quixotic beast that I began thinking about Doctor Who.

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Faint Praise.

25 Nov

I’m posting this as I leave for a wedding.

As I depart, bogey perversity insists I ask you, Who is Don Draper? 

This was the question that inspired me to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men. Don Draper, enigmatic and alone, is the postmodern man from your worst fantasy. Still predatory, no longer derogatory.

This was the man I went to find in Ms Ehrenreich’s book.

And failed. Long Live Dream Draper.

The Hearts of Men, a story of mounting perfidy, describes the genesis and evolution of the “male revolt”. In it, she draws a line from  the ‘grey flannel’ playboys to the punks of the early ‘80s.

In all of them, aspects of the Draper abide. Like the grey-flannels, he has an ideal housewife; like the Beats he’s a prole. Like the Hef, his appetite is legendary.

E pluribus, unum.

Hearts of Men

Chloé-Poizat; "mes yeux distendus"

Our telly likes its women fertile and undemanding. Across genre and trope and theme,  girls are penalised for challenging chromosomes. Women are killed cos they’re pregnant, cos they’re not, cos they’re pregnant with the wrong sort of baby.  There is even a soap imploring us to stay away from this cruel country.  Consider, for a sampling:

SAAS BINA SASURAL 

Hic sunt the Toasty, arriving in a household of seven men. A solid bahu, Toasty proceeds to live up to her lovely name. She quits her job, ingratiates her way into everyone’s confidence, discovers a Devastating Secret: an earlier bahu stormed out. Wretched predecessor now divorcing Family.

PAVITRA RISHTA. 

I fled through Pavitra Rishta in forty two minutes. Here is the Saas. There is the other saas rescuing her daughter from abuse.

Moral Turmoil.  Mortal Toil.  More Turmoil. Boy and Girl elope…. I give up.

Pavitra Rishta frames the dominant fantasy of popular soaps. Women exist to ‘knit Families together’.  All their dreams and marginal rebellions are doomed to the devil’s treadmill. Keep your head down, it counsels, as you negotiate imposed boundaries.  Obey, don’t reason. Don’t think, smile!

Her family, pure-bahu concludes after each righteous day, is the sole reason for her sustenance. To separate any woman from her (wedded) Family is a theft of her soul, her identity, her reflection in the mirror. Without her husband, the fabric of her existence would melt away — she would be worse than worthless, she would be wasted.

Why I Sing My Blues. 

Faint Praise.

Size isn’t everything. It’s what you do

That matters, darling, and you do it quite well

In some respects. Credit where credit’s due –

You work, you’re literate, you rarely smell.

Small men can be aggressive, people say,

But you are often genial and kind,

As long as you can have things all your way

And I comply, and do not speak my mind.

You look all right. I’ve never been disgusted

By paunchiness. Who wants some skinny youth?

My friends have warned me that you can’t be trusted

But I protest I’ve heard you tell the truth.

Nobody’s perfect. Now and then, my pet,

You’re almost human. You could make it yet.

*

Semper Fidelis. 

tis black/out back.

8 Apr

The only reason this post isn’t called this fuckin’ ‘verse! is cos I was scared of the search-spam said title would generate.

I have been burned, and I repent, whatever Gibbon might think.

Well, then. Last month the mylaw books column was all about women. It was an exercise I undertook with a fair measure of derision — and it was one I didn’t want to be ‘seen’ taking. It wasn’t camaraderie, or redressal, or anything so simple; it was, if anything, acknowledgment. Women aren’t talked about enough in our world, in any field, and four weeks of me writing about female writers is hardly about to change this.  The women I wrote about – Barbara Ehrenreich, Diana Wynne Jones, Zadie Smith- are all in their own way spectacular, but in no way representative. They aren’t the women I look to for guidance, or direction; they are merely the women my eye turned to this month. I felt it was important to make a statement, thus I did, and shall we leave it at that? I equivocated with Zadie, I gad about with Diana, I damn Don Draper with faint praise. The death of Diana Wynne Jones a week after I wrote about her makes an unhappy tribute out of that essay, much as I ardently wish she was still around spinning capital yarns. If I had known, I’d have made a grander task of it. The grim reaper stalks us all, and seems determined to steal away the best of us.

Anyway, there were also essays about Chabon, and comics, and  that’s been the month on mylaw. In other news, my Whedon essay is published, and I am inordinately proud of it, so perhaps one of you could trash it and restore the karma of the universe.

This is the unedited version. It holds the ‘temperance’ card in my arcana, inspired as it was by Macaulay: virtue is vice in just temper.

The Big Bad Universe.

 

Bookplate; from the collection of Richard Sica

Joss Whedon’s great gift is his ability to extrapolate into the clear blue sky from mundane speculative fiction stereotypes: fairy tales, space travel, mind control. It was this uncanny momentum that lifted Dollhouse’s torpid first season into the sublime second season and propelled Firefly into Serenity. The most consistent application of this talent was in the crafting of his ‘Big Bads’. Whedon might not have invented the seasonal arc on television, but he certainly made great strides towards perfecting it, and he did it by dancing through shadows.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s most influential cultural product, chronicles the rebellion of a champion. Buffy is the chosen one, strong enough to bear the weight of the world, until she finds a way to scatter and delegate her burden. The superhuman strength is an imposed fate, it is her destiny to be the slayer. Her true skill lies in an ability to forge friendships and build pragmatic alliances; with a little help from her friends, the Scoobies, she helps protect human civilization against the forces of chaos and anarchy. Yet, it is only by breaking ancient laws that she ultimately liberates herself, and the evidence is clear: sometimes you have to break the rules to preserve them. Whether this is an improvement remains to be seen. The season eight comics delve into the consequences of creating an army of slayers, but this essay is restricted to Whedon’s television.

A lot has been made of in fandom about Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Joseph Campbell’s work. A quick scan of Hero with a 1000 faces reveals his debt, and certainly the narrative structure of Buffy draws heavily upon the “monomyth” of the hero.  However, I think the emphasis on Campbell elides more important themes within Whedon’s television, and evades his central cultural point: that evil is an empirical question, not an epistemological one. Evil is as it does, not as it is conceived.

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The Mantle of the Vicious Bitch

8 Mar

I’ve been in television hibernation this past month, and it took the centenary of women’s day to draw me out. I’ve always been iffy on the subject of women’s day — why, precisely, are we celebrating half of humanity? I guess any publicity- look, we exist- is better than none.

Here I am. Watch me exult.

The excuse for my telly fest (which concluded last week) was my contribution to Popmatters’ Whedon retrospective, which will go up later this month on bogey. The inspiration for my little rant below was Darla, that first modern working girl.  For a feminist writer, Whedon is uniformly unkind in doling out her fate, though perhaps after 500 years of killing she was due some dying. Multiple times, even.  Darla, Angel’s sire,  is the vampire we meet in the first scene of Buffy. Dusted by Angel in season one, she is revived by Wolfram and Hart three years later, tormented in assorted ways (including one ill-fated pregnancy) until she finally kills herself. Amazing how often that happens in Angel: women sacrificing self for spawn. Though I guess Illyria is not, strictly speaking, spawn.

My title, for whedon-trivia, is borrowed off Cordy, from my favourite Angel episode. This would be Billy, in which Lilah kills her misogynist client. What can I say? Lilah’s got me on my knees. Remember when she gives Wesley The Divine Comedy before he goes all dark and they get all horny? In the original Tuscan, too, so classy and clever, which almost made me want to be a lawyer again.

Billy, though, is in close competition with Guise will be Guise, where Wesley impersonates Angel while the original and a fake swami have the following conversation:

Magev:  “You’re deeply ambivalent.”
Angel:  “Yeah, well, I am and I’m not.”
Magev:  “You need to get over her. – Okay, what does she [Darla] look like?”
Angel:  “She’s beautiful. – Small, blonde…”
Magev:  “Right.  So here’s what you do.  You go out and find yourself some small, blonde thing.  You bed her, you love her, you treat her like crap, you break her heart.  You and your inner demon will thank me, I promise.”

 

 

And, in spirit with these serendipitous times, a poem I found on Spaniard in the Works,

 

Chewing slowly,

Only after I’d eaten

My grandmother,

Mother,

Son-in-law,

Two brothers-in-law,

And father-in-law

(His big family included)

In that order,

And had for dessert

The town’s inhabitants,

 

Did I find, says Kabir,

The beloved that I’ve become

One with

 

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Via Media

4 Jul

I was once asked to comment on a paper called “How to Subvert Democracy: Montesinos in Peru” in law school.

Montesinos was the Head of Intelligence in Peru in the ‘90s, when Fujimori was in power. Via SIN (how’s that for evocative language?), he bribed his bosses’ way into power. He paid off parliament members, judges, newspapers, and news television channels – this last he paid the most money of all. The authors provide several  explanations:

  • Television channel owners are generally richer than the average politician. In an endemically corrupt system, they get box seats.
  • Channels  influence public perception more than individual judges and senators do.
  • He had to buy all the news channels in order for his control to be effective, while he just needed “enough” judges and politicians.

Finally, they argue the fourth estate — gagging the press amounts bypasses democratic institutions, and thus a democracy produced a dictator. All fine points that miss something basic. Fujimori wasn’t a dictator.  He was formally elected, and not by a banana republic margin, even if he did wrangle himself a third term in power.  Once Peruvians found out about the scandal, he obligingly ran away. Besides, tyrants don’t pussyfoot around buying off television channels. They kill offensive journalists.

The capture of the media isn’t something Montesinos dreamt up, and it isn’t a symptom of corruption. It is a symptom of governance in sufficiently “evolved” societies. It undermines democracy, but that’s only relevant if one separates the idea of democracy from the working of democracies. Fujimori wasn’t a dictator, he was Eco’s Man from Television, an early model Clegg or Obama.

This is a president intent on charming the pants off the gullible, and the tragedy is that so many of these people exist. Democracy was to free us of the personality cult and encourage debate on policy. So where did all the skeptics of the liberals’ fond imagination go? Where are all those American people who should be wondering right about now why their country has such mystifying foreign policy? Why aren’t there more? Cos they’re all watching Gossip Girl and Survivor: Tiny Island. What about all the Indians who should be wondering why our government puts people into ghettos? We, too, are watching Gossip Girl, but then we live within an empire, so ’tis to be expected.

For decades, people like Guy Debord have warned us of the difference between spectacle and symbol, of the inhumanity in being an audience to suffering. I won’t go into the whole capitalism-alienation-apathy argument here, but surely tis evident that the mass media isn’t geared for a thinking citizenry. If a thinking citizenry is what democracy demands, we doom ourselves to failure. This isn’t subversion of democracy, it is annihilation, and it happens everywhere.

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