Fact Versus Fiction: Alan Hollinghurst’s [The Line of Beauty]

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (2004)

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004)

I find it so easy to get lost in the elegance and artistry of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I originally planned to read this book in a day or two, but it took me a while longer simply because I was so enthralled and moved by the novel’s baroque descriptions and its aesthetic focus on issues pertaining to gayness and queerness during the 1980s. Blurring the lines between gay historical fiction, the Bildungsroman, and the novel of mannersThe Line of Beauty explores the lines that divide British upper-class and middle-class society, and the relationship between homosexual identity and class during the conservative boom in the United Kingdom under the rule of  Margaret Thatcher. Even more so, Hollinghurst’s novel offers readers an opportunity to examine the heartbreaking effects of AIDS during the rise of the disease.

The novel centers on the life and experiences of Nick Guest in his early twenties, as he graduates from Oxford University and begins a postgraduate degree in English at another university–where he specializes on the issue of style in the works of Henry James. Nick becomes close friends with Toby and Catherine, who are the children of Gerald Fedden, a wealthy Member of the British Parliament. Although Toby and Nick are best friends, Nick becomes very close and intimate with Catherine, a manic-depressive. Because of Nick’s ability to understand and help Catherine, Gerald invites Nick to stay in his mansion so that he can keep a watchful eye over his daughter. Nick stays at the Fedden residence for four years; here, he not only learns about the radical differences that exist between the lavish lifestyle of the Feddens and his own middle-class upbringing, but he also begins to explore his gay identity by dating  an older and much more experienced black council worker named Leo. Although Nick is out to the Fedden family, the issue of homosexuality instills a sense of discomfort in Gerald and his wife, Rachel. The family’s attitude towards homosexuality is made apparent early in the novel, when the family discusses the case of Hector Maltby, a junior minister of the Foreign Office who was caught having sex with a rent boy in his Jaguar:

The story had been all over the papers last week, and it was silly of Nick to feel as self-conscious as he suddenly did, blushing as if he’d been caught in a Jaguar himself. It was often like this when the homosexual subject came up, and even in the Fedden’s tolerant kitchen he stiffened in apprehension about what might carelessly be said–some indirect insult to swallow, a joke to be weakly smiled at. (22)

The residents of the Fedden estate are characterized not only by their social hypocrisy, but also by their silences: by refusing to talk of certain issues, they strive to act as if said issues are minor, non-consequential, and non-existent. As a matter of fact, Nick is characterized by his penchant for concealing or hiding information to assure that certain perceptions or attitudes are upheld in the Fedden residence. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Nick discovers that Catherine, who has already attempted to harm herself, has been storing sharp tools within her bedroom. Rather than discussing this detail with Catherine’s parents, he decides to keep this information concealed to avoid upsetting Gerald and Rachel when they return from their trip. Nick not only conceals truths that he believes will upset the Fedden family, but he also has issues when it comes to separating fact from fiction–which leads to the manifestation of the vicious cycles that are so characteristic of postmodern texts:

In the course of their long conversations about men he had let one or two of his fantasies assume the status of fact, had lied a little, and had left some of Catherine’s assumptions about him unchallenged. His confessed but entirely imaginary seductions took on–partly through the special effort required to invent them and repeat them consistently–the quality of real memories. (24)

Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion. (48)

As evidenced above, Nick not only strives to conceal truth to uphold his social image, but he also fabricates stories to uphold a socially appealing facade. He frets when it comes to revealing his lack of knowledge or his lack of sexual experience–to the point where his fabrications become entirely real to him, or even worse, to the point where he deliberately forgets or represses truths about himself. This is perhaps most apparent when the novel, which is comprised of three parts, transitions from part one to part two. Part one, which takes place in 1983, concludes with Nick and Leo sleeping together in the Fedden’s house. The second part of the book takes place three years later, and it begins with a description of Nick’s affair with Wani Ouradi, a multi-millionaire of Lebanese descent who is engaged to a woman. This temporal leap leaves a gap in the narrative of the story. As readers, we have no clue what happened between Leo and Nick during this three-year span–all we are sure of is that they are no longer together, and that Nick’s relationship with Wani is masochistic and unhealthy. Not only is Wani into promiscuous and unsafe sex with strangers, but he is also addicted to porn and cocaine, and he is also deeply closeted. Nick, however, remains by Wani’s side not because the relationship is practical, but rather, because Wani is beautiful. This connects to one of the novel’s main themes, in which appearances trump pragmatics and livability. This desire for beauty and for appearance ultimately affects Nick’s ability to face his own truths, as is seen in the instance in which he encounters Wani seducing a stranger:

He went across the room and put the car keys down on the side table, and when he looked back Ricky and Wani were snogging, nothing had been said, there were sighs of consent, a moment’s glitter of saliva before a shockingly tender second kiss. Nick gave a breathy laugh, and looked away, in the grip of a misery unfelt since childhood, and too fierce and shaming to be allowed to last. (173)

Later on in the novel, Nick finds out that Leo has died due to AIDS-related complications. As Leo’s sister tells Nick the news, he at first wants to lie to her by stating that Leo dumped him, but he recognizes that this lie would seem petty, especially when considering the fact that Leo is no longer alive. Although Nick convinces himself that Leo was seeing someone else, we realize that he develops this “memory” to conceal the fact that he broke up with Leo soon after finding out that he was sick– “to screen a glimpse he’d had of a much worse story, that Leo was ill” (350). It becomes clear at this point that the three-year gap in the novel represents Nick’s unwillingness to deal with or recall the truths behind his relationship with Leo. Leo’s illness, in Nick’s eyes, would corrupt his beauty and make him imperfect, which is why he pursues a relationship with the physically flawless and beautiful Wani. However, towards the conclusion of the novel, it is revealed that Wani is also dying of AIDS-related complications–thus forcing Nick to meet truth face-to-face, while simultaneously forcing him to confront the realities of his own life.

I find it interesting that Catherine, the manic-depressive sisterly figure of the novel, is represented as the only person capable of dealing with truth and looking beyond the lies fabricated by her peers. For instance, when one of her friends, Pat, dies of AIDS, her family desperately tries to conceal that he died of this illness to prevent themselves being associated with a so-called “gay-related” disease. Catherine, however, forces the family to face the truth about Pat’s death, even though this confrontation leads to public shame and embarrassment. She later tries to convince Nick that “People are lovely because we love them, not the other way round” (304), to make him realize how toxic his relationship with Wani truly is, and to prove to him that the value that we bestow to people and objects should be based on more than just aesthetics. Catherine ultimately induces both the downfall of Nick and of her father, by revealing truths to the press: she not only reveals the fact that her father is having an affair with another woman, but she also reveals how Nick and Wani’s affair is taking place within the Fedden household–thus collapsing the differences between the gay and the straight world upheld by the Fedden family. The novel isn’t explicit of whether Catherine’s thirst for truth is triggered by her depression, or whether her depression was caused by her desire for truth in a mendacious environment–but it is interesting to observe how a character with a non-normative state of mind is able to look beyond the social masks and constructs that haunt the lives of these characters.

I love this novel. It is dense, thematically rich, and it is full of gaps and plot holes. It is not an easy novel to read or follow, but it excels at portraying the triumphs and failures of characters who are enticed and enslaved by the pursuit of beauty, even at the cost of truth, pragmatism, and reality. I also appreciate how this novel uses pastiche in order to invoke historical conceptions of AIDS in a contemporary platform–especially since discussions of AIDS have unfortunately diminished since the normativization of the disease due to the advent of anti-viral medications.

What are your thoughts or impressions of this novel? Feel free to add to this conversation!

You can purchase a copy of Hollinghurst’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Hollinghurst, Alan. The Line of Beauty. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print (hardcover edition).

On the Development and Evolution of Culture – Raymond Williams’ [The Sociology of Culture]

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture, originally published in 1982, is a precise and methodological approach towards the field of cultural sociology. The book is centered on establishing the prominence, evolution, and reproduction of culture. Williams ultimately traces this evolution through a discussion of cultural sociology, and through a painstaking description of cultural forms and their nuances.

Raymond Williams posits that a sociology of culture is an  cross-sectional, cross disciplinary area of study that is concerned with all areas of cultural production, including those forms that can be approached as ideological. The work of the cultural sociologist or cultural historian centers on:

the social practices and social relations which produce not only ‘a culture’ or ‘an ideology’ but, more significantly, those dynamic actual states and works within which there are not only continuities and persistent determinations but also tensions, conflicts, resolutions and irresolutions, innovations and actual changes. (29)

Thus, rather than attempting to solely find easy solutions to problems, the sociology of culture tries to take into account the totality of cultural productions, even when this totality is paradoxical or incomprehensible. This encompassing approach strives to rework social and sociological ideas that approach cultural productions such as language and art as marginal or peripheral social processes. Furthermore, the sociology of culture “is concerned above all to enquire, actively and openly, into these received and presumed relations, and into other possible and demonstrable relations” (10).

Williams opens his discussion by alluding to the multitudinous definitions of culture that exist. He points out three common and general definitions that are usually attributed to culture; however, he points out that the third definition is the most common usage within contemporary cultures (all three definitions are found on page 11):

  1. a developed state of mind – referring to the person who possessed a developed or cultured mind. (e.g. Neil goes to art museums every weekend. He is a very cultured individual).
  2. the processes of this development – referring to cultural interests or activities. (e.g. wine-tasting, opera, going to the theater, going to an art museum, playing golf, attending a lecture, playing a game, watching a television show, etc.).
  3. the means of these processes – referring to the broad categorizations used to approach cultural processes. (e.g. the humanities, the arts, the sciences, etc.).

These definitions of culture, according to Williams, can be traced back to two different “convergences” of interests: one that he refers to as idealist, which emphasizes on the “informing spirit” (11), or in other words, a lifestyle that aims for broad and deep engagement with socio-cultural activities; Williams approaches the other convergence as materialist, which emphasizes “a whole social order” (12), in which “a specifiable culture, in styles of art and kinds of intellectual work, is seen as the direct or indirect product of an order primarily constituted by other social activities” (12). For instance, from this macro perspective, we can refer to a specific Puerto Rican culture, which is known for possessing its own music (bomba, plena, salsa, and reggaeton), literature and literary figures, and even its own cuisine (banana tamales, arroz con gandules, etc.).

Although these were the traditional convergences that were usually scrutinized when conducting a cultural study, Williams points out that there is a third emerging convergence that is becoming evident in contemporary cultural work–and this third convergence becomes the central object of analysis in The Sociology of Culture. This third convergence “sees culture as the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored” (13). This convergence is quite different from the previous two because it takes into account signs and signifiers, along with the traits usually associated with these elements, such as reproduction, replication, and innovation. Even more so, this focus on cultural signifiers allows sociologists to more effectively scrutinize social relations as mediations rather than reflections. According to Williams, mediation refers to the

necessary processes of composition, in a specific medium; as such it indicates the practical relations between social and artistic forms […]. But in its more common uses it refers to an indirectness of relation between experience and its composition. (24)

Another element that Williams approaches as crucial for the sociology of culture is the concept of ideology, for it is used to approach and categorize “formal and conscious beliefs of a class or other social group” (26) or “the characteristic world-view of general perspective of a class or other social group” that includes conscious and “less conscious, less formulated attitudes, habits and feelings” (26). Williams seems to prefer the latter definition because he believes that an effective ideological critique cannot be restricted solely to formal and conscious matters. He also makes a succinct critique of the notion of a general ideology, explaining that if the term is used to allude to a broad group or a way of life lived by a certain community, then we run the risk of creating a “false generality […] to discriminate ascriptions to specific classes and other groups” (29). Williams thus highlights the sociological necessity of the concept of ideology, as long as it not used as a term to categorize or stereotype the “informing spirit” of a universal or broad population.

I was particularly drawn to Williams’ chapters on identifications and reproductions, mostly because they contribute immensely to conversations that I’m engaged with in terms of the “literariness” of young adult fiction, and the possibility of approaching the young adult novel as an object capable of cultural innovation. Williams devotes a significant amount of effort into discussing notions of the aesthetic. He speculates that at first, many might assume that the aesthetic seems relatively easy to define–the term is usually approached as a a synonym for terms such as beauty, harmony, or proportion. However, these terms lead to an “untraceable” problem when it is deemed that people can specialize in channeling or using these perceptions to recognize and judge works of art. Another problem that arises when it comes to the aesthetic and the arts is the plasticity of the term; art can be used as a categorical marker to approach everything from hair, fashion, decoration, landscaping, dancing, and sports, among others. Williams also points out that the arts are a label usually assigned to “areas of human thought and discourse” (124), as seen within the humanities.

The problematic nature of the notion of aesthetics leads Williams to ask an important question within the sociology of culture: what is, or what is not, art? Williams points out that judgments of value, quality, and execution are expected in virtually every practice. However, within the practice of art, there are works that are produced through a practice recognized as art that are difficult to categorize or approach as art. For instance, although some films, such as Academy Award-winning movies, can be and are approached as art, there are other movies that people would refuse to view as such. Think, for instance, of the differences between movies such as The PianistDude, Where’s My Car?; InceptionThe Hoursand Sharknado.  Some of these movies would, undoubtedly, be approached as high-quality works of art; others would be approached as a movie capable of killing brain cells. Williams points out that the criteria used to approach cultural artifacts and productions is variable and unstable, and even though a production might comply with expected and general standards, it might still lack an element that prevents it from being categorized as art proper.  As Williams puts it:

a ‘bad novel’ does everything that the category ‘novel’ indicates, at the level of generic definition, but then fails to do something else, either in its ‘aesthetic process’ or in terms of its ‘seriousness’ or its ‘relation to reality’ (which at least explicitly, the original definition had not included). (125)

This notion is problematized even more by the fact that works that were once considered “bad” can later on obtain status as a “legitimate” work of art. Williams points out that novels, for instance, were considered to be a literary object associated with lower classes–whereas this is clearly not the case today. Science fiction novels, as Williams claims, are also examples of works that “move from one side of the [art/not art]divide into another, or are straddled across it” (125). Williams then delves into the social processes of art, and he makes a claim that I, at first, was rather skeptical about. He argues that

The attempt to distinguish between good, bad and indifferent work in specific practices is, when made in full seriousness and without the presumption of privileged classes and habits, an indispensable element of the central social process of conscious human production” (126).

My hesitancy about this claim arose from my belief that this focus on the “good” or “not good” is a dated idea in that contemporary critical studies recognizes that all objects, good or bad, are capable of informing the subject on the social processes of human production. However, from a social perspective, this divide between the good and the bad can be useful, because it highlights the way elements and productions are socially organized. Thus, Williams does not view these labels as permanent, but rather, he views these labels as markers in flux: “variable social forms within which the relevant practices are perceived and organized” (130).

The Room (2003) is a film that is almost universally recognized for being one of the worst movies of all time. What does this help us to understand how cultural forms and productions are socially organized? What makes The Room a bad film? Even more so, how do we approach the film once we take into account its popularity as a cult classic? Is this movie so bad that it becomes good?

– – –

Another chapter that I was really interested in was the one on cultural reproduction. Williams opens this chapter by discussing the tension that exists between micro socio-cultural studies that target a very specific forms, practices, and institutions, and macro socio-cultural studies that tries to develop a general theory that accounts for most social processes. He believes that the more one knows about a subject, the more one tries to defend it from being distilled or interpreted through a broad, general perspective. He then proposes a distinction between two kinds of cultural consciousness that are in play in terms of the value of the specific over the general:

  1. “that alert, open and usually troubled recognition of specificity and complexity” that puts “working generalizations and hypotheses under strain” (182).
  2. the “often banal, satisfaction with specificity and complexity, as reasons for endless postponement of all (even local) general judgments or decisions” (182).

Williams argues that the distinction between these two forms of consciousness is crucial towards understanding the process of cultural reproduction.  Cultural reproduction is approached as a temporal concept (one that is not always historical) that involves “movement from one dateable manifestation of culture to another” (183). Cultural reproduction is also a negotiable concept, or better said, a notion that is characterized by its plasticity. Williams points out that when talking of cultural reproduction, it is important to keep the two connotations of the word reproduction in mind: although it can denote the exact replication of an object (such as in the case of a photocopying machine), it can also have a biological valence in which a new organism is producde that shares traits with the original source, without being an exact copy. Williams asserts that when it comes to cultural reproduction, both connotations should be kept in mind because “There are very few significant cultural processes analogous to the printing press or the photocopier, but there are also very few analogous to sexual or other biological reproduction” (185).

In terms of reproduction, Williams emphasizes works that are transitional, that is, works produced when formal innovation begins to manifest within a particular culture. Innovation usually takes place in these transitional forms when there are new elements that are “incompatible or undigested” present within the work. As Williams points out, there are times when a work’s treatment of these new elements may be simplified and unable to reach their full potential, but we must be careful not to ignore their formal significance by comparing them with “preceding or succeeding mature examples” (200).  It is quite easy for scholars to not notice transitional innovation when it is occurring, but as Williams puts it, this innovation “is one of the very few elements of cultural production to which the stock adjective, ‘creative’, is wholly appropriate” (200).

After addressing the issue of innovation and reproduction, Williams classifies categories of social and cultural change that take into account relations of domination and subordination, but that also takes into account the dynamic nature of cultural forms. These categories are:

  1. Dominant – Williams asserts that this is the most obvious condition of production. Dominant forms are usually seen as crucial, “natural,” and necessary by forms that are not dominant. Dominant forms are not always overtly aware of their dominance. There is a range between dominant forms that consciously control (e.g. the press), “various kinds of displacement, to a presumed (and then dominant) autonomy of professional and aesthetic values” (204).
  2. Residual – “work made in earlier and often different societies and times, yet still available and significant” (204).
  3. Emergent – “work of various new kinds” (204).

Williams points out how the dominant can absorb, or at least attempt to absorb, the residual and emergent forms. He also posits that there is older work preserved by certain groups available as an alternative to “dominant contemporary cultural production” (204), just as there is almost always the presence of innovative work that tries to move beyond dominant forms, and at times succeeds. Interestingly, Williams asserts that some forms of innovation can happen within the dominant, ultimately becoming a new form of the dominant.

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture is a slightly difficult yet very insightful book that gives scholars the tools and the terminology needed to effectively scrutinize and critique culture. There are countless other interesting ideas in this book that I could’ve highlighted in this discussion, but I simply decided to focus on the elements of the book that will be useful for my future research. In due course, I hope this post gives you a better idea of the notions discussed in The Sociology of Culture, and I hope that it pushes you to give it a read.

Work Cited

Williams, Raymond. The Sociology of Culture. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. Print.

Queer Commodities: Contemporary US Fiction, Consumer Capitalism, and Gay and Lesbian Subcultures

Front cover of Guy Davidson's Queer Commodities

Front cover of Guy Davidson’s Queer Commodities

The process of commodification is commonly viewed as antithetical to the notion of queer. While many people within LGBT communities or subcultures have widely embraced the increasing presence and assimilation of gay culture into mainstream culture (which includes an increasing representation of gay and lesbian characters/issues in the media, the nationalization of LGBT rights, among others), some have resisted this embrace due to the implications of commodification (which resonate immensely with the assimilationist strand of queer activism). Does an embrace of consumerism and modification entail a betrayal of a political queer agenda, which thrives not only on the challenging of the status quo, but also on the explicit efforts to avoid normalization or categorizations? 

By focusing his attention on the relationship between LGBT sexualities, liberatory politics, and consumer culture in five contemporary American novels, Davidson’s Queer Temporalities attempts to demonstrate the inadequacy of celebrating or condemning this relationship. This inadequacy leads Davidson to argue that commodification not only has a necessary but varying effects for gay and lesbian subcultures, but he also focuses on how these subcultures can “resist or transform some of capitalism’s more oppressive or pernicious dimensions” (2) through commodities.

Davidson begins his discussion of the relationship between LGBT subcultures and commodifictation by focusing first on the Stonewall Riots, acknowledging how the event led to the development of gay and lesbian urban culture; however, he questions the efficacy of marking this event as the political origin of the gay liberation movement. Drawing from activist John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” Davidson posits that the reason gay and lesbian lives were able to exist, and the reason why LGBT politics were developed in the first place, is due primarily to the existence of capitalism. The deviation from a family-based household economy to our current model of free-labor, essentially paved the way to a system outside of the normative heterosexual family that was possible.

According to this perspective, capitalism is the entity that not only propels LGBT politics and identity, but it is ultimately the phenomenon that created this identity domain in the first place. Davidson then goes on to suggest that attacks against the commodification of the LGBT community, despite their sophistication, are driven by “an unachievable desire for a gay and lesbian community that is politically radical and unified in purpose” (7). Because of the impossibility of community given the socio-cultural and political diversity within LGBT individuals, Davidson draws from predominant lines of thought in (Marxist) cultural studies in order to approach queer subjects as a subculture rather than a community. I think that this move is very clever and appropriate, especially when considering that the notion of community goes against the “world-making project” (14) of queer culture, because it is unable to sustain various factors such as the existence of more members than can possibly be identified, a formation of identity based on experience rather than birth, and an identity that is not necessarily tied to space or geography.

Davidson thus uses the term subculture because it still denotes a body of people who identify themselves as part of a group based on things they have in common. However, this body of people is still considered deviant according to the expectations and practices of a larger group of individuals. Within the use of the term subculture, Davidson is particular interested in the use of spectacular style, (which alludes to visible markers of identity, in addition to combinations of dress, dance, slang, music, attitudes, among others), and how this concept is/was crucial to pre- and post-liberation queer subcultures.

In due course, Davidson highlights that commodification has multi-faceted and unpredictable effects in queer subcultures: it can provide a venue for assimilation by sacrificing the “politics” of queerness, it can provide the possibility of resisting and altering the status quo, it can offer the possibility of futurity, or it can be used to refute futurity altogether. Nevertheless, despite of how commodity is embraced, rejected, ignored, or attacked within the queer realm, one must admit that commodity is the center of the past, present, and potential future of queer subculture.

Work Cited

Davidson, Guy. Queer Commodities: Contemporary US Fiction, Consumer Capitalism, and Gay and Lesbian Subcultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Davidson’s book here.

On Feelings, the Body, and Queer Grief: Sara Ahmed’s “The Cultural Politics of Emotion”

Front Cover of Sara Ahmed's The Cultural Politics of Emotion

Front Cover of Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion

I will begin by stating that Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion is a book that I was really looking forward to, mostly because it uses a multidisciplinary approach to comprehend how emotions are tied to notions such as culture and power. Even more so, the book explores how emotions, despite their apparent abstractness, are physically bound to the body and create a dichotomous split between the inside and outside world. What I thoroughly enjoyed about this read is that it really gave me a new way to think about emotions as physical manifestations that create or intensify boundaries (or the lack thereof). Ahmed truly has a gift for materializing abstract concepts in surprising ways, providing definitions for pain, hate, and love that are based purely on physical/concrete terms. The issue I had with this book, however, is that I felt that the discussion was at times scattered and too broad, ultimately making it difficult for me to establish strong connections and links across the chapters of the book. There were other times in which the discussion felt merely like a show and tell (here is an emotion, and here are some interesting things about this emotion). But all in all, this was a very thought-provoking read, and it is a book that I would like to revisit in order to better grasp its subtleties and nuances.

Ahmed’s book uses an approach that she calls ‘the sociology of emotion,’ a model that claims that emotions not only create boundaries between the inside and the outside, but that they also create a distinction between the individual and the social. Emotions tend to be categorized as very internal and individualistic processes, to the point in which what “I feel” is virtually impossible to accurately convey to others who surround me. Interestingly, Ahmed’s book is partially focused on the physical properties of emotions, including how they are tied to the body, how emotions develop and thrive thanks to their “stickiness” (their ability to unite bodies with particular signs), and the ties that exist between languages and emotions. By triangulating emotions, the body, and language, Ahmed tries to create a model that not only approaches emotions through a physical/bodily approach, but in tandem, she tries to explain how particular emotions (such as pain, shame, fear, love, and hate) affect larger phenomena such as culture, politics, and the self.

My favorite chapter within the book was the one titled “Queer Feelings,” which discusses why queer individuals are sometimes not recognized as subjects. This chapter also alludes to theories devised by Freud and Judith Butler in order to discussed what subjects can or can’t be mourned after death, and how melancholia can be converted into a powerful tool that helps ‘the queer’ to fulfill its mission to challenge the status quo. I want to briefly discuss this chapter, but before doing so, I want to share some quotes of Ahmed’s book that I found insightful and interesting. These quotes either provide insightful definitions that I would like to return to later on during my own research, or they discuss emotions in a way that hasn’t crossed my mind before.

  • “The intensity of feelings like pain recalls us to our body surfaces: pain seizes me back to my body” (26). “Pain involves the violation or transgression of the border between inside and outside, and it is through this transgression that I feel the border in the first place” (27).
  • “Hate may respond to the particular, but it tends to do so by aligning the particular with the general; ‘I hate you because you are this or that’, where the ‘this’ or ‘that’ evokes a group that the individual comes to stand for or stand in for. Hatred may also work as a form of investment; it endows a particular other with meaning or power by locating them as a member of a group, which is then imagined as a form of positive residence (that is, as residing positively in the body of the individual)” (49).
  • “The fact that the hate crime involves a perception of a group in the body of the individual does not make the violence any less real or ‘directed’; this perception has material effects insofar as it is enacted through violence. That is, hate crime works a a form of violence against groups through violence against the bodies of individuals. Violence against other may be one way in which the other’s identity is fixed or sealed; the other is forced to embody a particular identity by and for the perpetrator of the crime, and that force involves harm or injury” (55).
  • On the difference between fear and anxiety: “Anxiety becomes an approach to objects rather than, as with fear, being produced by an object’s approach. This slide between fear and anxiety is affected by the passing by of the object” (66).
  • On fear and space: “fear works to align the bodily and social space: it works to enable some bodies to inhabit and move in public space through restricting the mobility of other bodies to spaces that are enclosed or contained. Spaces extend the mobility of some bodies; their freedom to move shapes the surface of spaces, whilst spaces surface as spaces through the uneven distribution of fear which allows spaces to become territories, claimed as rights by some bodies and not others” (70).
  • On disgust: “disgust is shaped by the relation between objects. Objects come to matter within disgust reactions not simply insofar as they oppose ‘the I’, but through their contact with other objects. […] Disgust hence operates as a contact zone; it is about how things come into contact with other things” (87).
  • “Disgust, therefore, as an imperative not only to expel, but to make that very expulsion stick to some things and not others, does not always work simply to conserve that which is legitimated as a form of collective existence” (99).
  • “Shame in exposing that which has been covered demands us to re-cover, such a re-covering would be a recovery from shame. Shame consumes the subject and burns on the surface of bodies that are presented to others, a burning that exposes the exposure, and which may be visible in the form of a blush, depending on the skin of the subject, which might or might not show shame through this ‘colouring'” (104).
  • On the reciprocity of love: “love survives the absence of reciprocity in the sense that pain of not being loved in return–if the emotion ‘stays with’ the object to which it has been directed–confirms the negation that would follow from the loss of the object. Even though love is a demand for reciprocity, it is also an emotion that lives with the failure of that demand often through an intensification of its affect (so, if you do not love me back, I may love you more as the pain of that non-loving is a sign of what it means not to have this love)” (130).

Since I am interested in queer theory and LGBTQ literature, I think it comes as no surprise that my favorite chapter of this book was the one on “Queer Feelings,”  in which Ahmed focuses her discussion on a bodily approach to heteronormativity, queerness, and grief. She approaches all of these by centering them on the notions of comfort and discomfort. According to Ahmed, comfort can either be approached as the complete integration of the self with an external object, or the seamless integration of a body with an exterior space. Ahmed thus approaches heteronormativity as a public comfort because it allows certain (heterosexual) bodies to extend into a space that has already assumed their shape, thus, they do not feel discomfort or a lack of belonging:

one feels better by the warmth of being faced by a world one has already taken in. One does not notice this as a world when one has been shaped by that world, and even acquired its shape. […] Queer subjects, when faced by the ‘comforts’ of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable (the body does not ‘sink into’ a space that has already taken its shape). (148)

In addition to a discussion of (dis)comfort, I particularly enjoyed Ahmed’s discussion of queer grief, which centers its attention on how loss, mourning, melancholia, and comfort are attached to queer subjects, who by nature, must be recognized as real subjects in order to be grieved. Ahmed provides clarification in terms of the nature of a queer loss. While she admits queer grief does not imply that queer lives are existences that cannot be grieved, she focuses her attention on the fact that these grievances cannot be admitted or confessed in any way: “one has to recognise oneself as losing something before one can recognise oneself as losing something” (156).

In their analysis of grief as pertaining to unreal humans/subjects (subjects who come from “inferior” cultures that are dehumanized), both Butler and Ahmed allude to the Freudian differentiation between mourning and melancholia in order to illuminate their views. According to Freud, mourning entails a healthy process of grieving in which the living subject is able to let go of the memory of the dead subject. Melancholia, on the other hand, entails a “irrational” process in which the subject in morning and the “object” being mourned become one—in other words, the subject is unable to let go of the memory of the deceased. Whereas Freud views melancholia as pathological, Ahmed views it as a positive and productive trait when applied to unreal lives. This is because melancholia, unlike mourning, forces the subject to integrate the memory, or better said, the impression of the deceased into their own consciousness—giving the unreal a real existence that lives on through the melancholic. Furthermore, whereas mourning and the eventual rejection of the memory of the deceased implies a discomfort, melancholia entails absolute comfort with the memory of the departed. Ahmed thus proceeds to view grief as productive when it expresses itself through melancholia:

to lose another is not to lose one’s impressions, not all which are even conscious. To preserve an attachment is not to make an external other internal, but to keep one’s impressions alive, as aspects of one’s self that are both oneself and more than oneself, as a sign of one’s debt to others. One can let go of another as an outsider, but maintain one’s attachments, by keeping alive one’s impressions of the lost other. […] To grieve for others is to keep their impressions alive in the midst of their death. (160)

By keeping these impressions alive, the non-transcendence of queerness is kept alive as well, along with its inherent resistances to normativity. In Ahmed’s point of view, the melancholic integration of an unreal person permits a transcendence of queerness “that allows queer to do its work” in the first place (165). Part about what I love about this chapter is that it provides a model that can help counteract the view of the queer being associated with a lack of futurity, particularly since Ahmed’s view of queer grief through the melancholic subject allows the perpetuation of the queer body and the queer memory through the stickiness of signs. It is through this integration or queer impressions that queerness is given a shot at futurity, although it should be reiterated that queerness is not always given a chance to be integrated if it is not recognized.

Have you read Ahmed’s book? What are you impressions towards her physical/bodily approach towards emotions? What do you think of her chapter on queer feelings, especially when concerning her use of Freudian psychoanalysis?

Work Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

On the Evolution of Literary Culture – Jim Collins’ “Bring on the Books for Everybody”

One of the greatest challenges throughout my years engaged in graduate study has been the struggle to validate my field. Validation certainly is a problem in the humanities, especially with the advent and reign of STEM fields and areas. However, even within the field of English, I am constantly met with ridicule, or sometimes scorn, when I tell some of my colleagues that I  primarily work with teen and young adult literature. This has to do with the fact that there are some who consider the study of YA literature to lack the challenge and the intellectual rigor that “authentic” forms of literature fully embody. I find it very curious, however, that some literary scholars dismiss these forms of literature, when most of the time, it is the YA genre that sparked our love for literature in the first place.

Bring On the Books for Everbody

Trying to argue for the usefulness of inclusion of certain genres within the literary field is indeed challenging. However, the primary reason that this challenge is seemingly insurmountable can be attributed to people who think that the label of the “literary” is static and impervious to change. I recently read Jim Collin’s wonderful book titled Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, and in due course, this text was a delightful and in-depth exploration of how notions of the literary have rapidly transformed over the past few decades due to developments in multimedia, social networking, and book marketing. Furthermore, the book insightfully illustrates how the literary has melded into the realm of the popular despite the futile attempts to keep these two domains apart.

In his book, Jim Collins explores how popular literary culture developed during the 1990s due primarily to changes in terms how books are marketed, distributed, and sold, and also due to the emergence of different systems of literary expertise: one system based on the validation of literary texts based on their ability to be different and experimental (a.k.a. “literary”) and another system based on the authentication of good literature based on its ability to inspire, promote change, or authenticate feelings/desires for self-improvement. Collins’ explores how the appreciation and practice of literary texts has transcended from an appreciation of literature based on an author’s or text’s “transcendent literary genius” (183) to an appreciation of literature based on its ability to connect people, spark conversation, and speak to a particular community’s set of values, experiences, and expectations.

Part of what I found so convincing about Collins’ book was his reconfiguration of the notions of literary taste and literary communities. Traditionally, when speaking of literature, we tend to resort to the use of hierarchies in order to establish what texts deserve the literary crown, and which texts should remain within the lowest ranks of this pecking order. This notion was made very clear to me when I was once having a discussion with one of my colleagues, in which I was trying to defend Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games series as literary. I thought the series was noteworthy not only because it is an entertaining read, but also because it thoroughly explores issues that some readers otherwise would be oblivious to (i.e. capitalism, social injustice, etc.). My colleague, on the other hand, thought that the series was “poorly written” and that it was too focused on the ventures of a “whiny protagonist.” What we had here was a clash not only of taste, but also in terms of our identifications with particular reading communities. But were any of us wrong? According to Jim Collins, not necessarily so.

Do you consider the Hunger Games to be literary? Why or why not?

Do you think The Hunger Games  has “literary” merit? Why or why not?

Collins focuses on how emerging literary markets, especially those found online in sites such as Amazon.com and large book chains such as Barnes & Noble, are based not on hierarchical tastes, but rather, on the acknowledgment of “different reading communities as coequal options” (78-9). This can especially be seen by the Listmania lists that certain readers develop in Amazon, in which people resort to book recommendations not based on a hierarchy of what is good or bad, but rather, on how well a reader’s own literary taste matches with that of the list creator (thus converting the list creator into someone whose literary judgment can be trusted). The Web has enhanced the existence and prominence of particular reading groups and communities, especially with the advent of websites such as Goodreads, which allows users to generate lists based on the votes and opinions of thousands of readers. My discussion with my colleague in terms of the Hunger Games series not only exemplifies our belonging to different reading communities, but it also represents a clash between traditional and current understandings of literary culture.

Collins further explores this tension by focusing on how forms of popular culture have not only become more “literary” as time has progressed, but also how these forms further fuel the perpetuation of a literary culture that is wrongfully deemed lost. Whether it be through film adaptations, through television shows, through social powerhouses such as Oprah’s Book Club, or even through other forms unexplored by Collins, such as video games and internet blogs—the way we experience the literary is no longer bound to text. Did you delve into Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby though writing, or did you recently watch the 2013 adaptation? Are you familiar with the life of Leonardo Da Vinci through encyclopedias and history books, or do you watch the 2013 television series Da Vinci’s Demons? Have you experienced Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the playtext, through a performance, through the Sparknotes available online, through a comic book, or through one of the many movie adaptations (such as the 1996 version by Kenneth Branagh)? Perhaps the divide between literary and popular culture is not as engulfing as many assume it to be. As brilliantly put by Collins:

Popular literary culture represents a powerful counterargument to the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, since it is built, from the ground up, on the interdependency of the print and visual culture, not a world of books versus wall screens, which persists only within an ideology of reading that can accept just one form of literacy and, therefore, must demonize all electronic culture. (265)

I think that an awareness of how literary culture has changed will be extremely usefully, especially for those who explore non-canonical or non-traditional literary forms. At least within my own studies, I am sure that Collins’ discussion will serve as a sturdy platform for my explorations within the young adult genre, a genre that in due course thrived with the advent of today’s popular literary culture. If you’re seeking a way to situate your understanding of literature within the landscape of popular culture, or if you simply need to encounter an optimistic spin on the literary future of contemporary society, then I definitely suggest that you give this book a look.

Primary Source:

Collins, Jim. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

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“On the Evolution of Literary Culture – Jim Collins’ Bring on the Books for Everybody” was first published at http://angelmatos.net on June 11th, 2013.

When (Gay) Porn and Academia Collide: Pornography as Emancipation?

Never in my life did I think that I’d be writing about porn within an academic setting, but I guess there is a first time for everything (especially if you work in areas such as gender or queer studies)!

While surfing the web and perusing through Buzzfeed (a website that provides a snapshot of the viral web in real time), I encountered an article titled “Why Are We Afraid to Talk About Gay Porn?,” written by author, teacher, and gay porn star Conner Habib. According to Habib’s fact sheet, he pursued an MFA in creative studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he also taught literature, creative writing, and composition for three years. He also claims that he is perhaps the only person who has won awards for his teaching, his writing, and his porn performances. Talk about a triple threat!

Habib

Writer, teacher, and gay porn star Conner Habib.

Recently, the web has been abuzz with news that Habib’s presentation on sex and culture–to be offered at Corning Community College–was cancelled after the college’s president found out that he was an active porn actor. Of course, this may be unsurprising to many seeing the staunch resistance that people in general have when it comes to the discussion of sex within a public space–indicating that indeed, Michel Foucault was absolutely right when discussing the enclosure of sex within the private sphere.

As a doctoral student myself, and particularly as a scholar of literature and gender studies, I often find it surprising that many students, classmates, and colleagues have this almost mystical fear of discussing sexually-charged topics within the classroom. And if the topic has somehow come up within the class, people speak with either scorn or hesitation.

According to Habib, the president of Corning Community College decided to cancel his presentation after finding out that he immersed himself into the porn industry after (not prior to) becoming an educator–thus cementing the notion that progressive sexual politics should not be linked in any way to pornography. This notion echoed the sentiments of many of my classmates in the Theory and Practice of Gender course that I am taking at Notre Dame: according to some of them, pornography is a social ill or evil that is linked to the patriarchal values that are degrading our society. Never mind that fact that there are many around us who watch porn on a regular basis, yet they refuse to “confess” this fact. My question is: what about those porn actors who are empowered by their work? Is porn always degrading? Can porn be viewed as emancipatory or liberatory in any way or fashion?

The discussion that took place in the classroom was inspired in part by a discussion of Catherine MacKinnon‘s views towards pornography, sexuality, and patriarchy. In her (dated) article titled Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: ‘Pleasure under Patriarchy’, MacKinnon offers us the expected and typical view of pornography as an anti-feminist and patriarchal embrace of all of the attitudes and desires that force our culture into a so-called state of stagnancy and repression. Focusing mostly on the brutal and “degrading” aspects of pornography, MacKinnon presents a defense in which many audiences are denied a voice and a presence within the market of porn.

The article does not take into account the fact that there are plenty of women (I know dozens of them) that watch porn, it does not delve deeply into the implications of gay pornography, and in all honesty, it can be said that MacKinnon focuses on the pornographic genres focused on abuse, masochism, and brutality–even going as far as to depict soft core porn as a genre portraying the fantasies of possession and objectification. As she herself puts it:

Pornography permits men to have whatever they want sexually. It is their “truth about sex.” It connects the centrality of visual objectification to both male sexual arousal and male models of knowledge and verification, connecting objectivity with objectification. It shows how men see the world, how in seeing it they access and possess it, and how this is an act of dominance over it. It shows what men want and gives it to them. From the testimony of the pornography, what men want is: women bound, women battered, women tortured, women humiliated, women degraded and defiled, women killed. Or, to be fair to the soft core, women sexually accessible, have-able, there for them, wanting to be taken and used, with perhaps just a little light bondage. Each violation of women-rape, battery, prostitution, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment-is made sexuality, made sexy, fun, and liberating of women’s true nature in the pornography. (326-327)

First and foremost, it must be made clear that MacKinnon wrote this article in 1989. Much has changed since then, but it is eerie to realize that many of these attitudes are very prevalent in today’s society. Now, I will be the first to admit that porn is definitely not an accurate presentation of reality: it is a deliberate construction or staging, in which sex is depicted in a way that is meant to provide both entertainment and arousal. Porn is also rhetorical in nature, in that it is meant to reach specific audiences with particular tastes and expectations. But is it productive to approach porn solely as a patriarchal and repressive agent? Do we want to go as far as to link pornography with deviant sexual acts such as rape, abuse or molestation, such as MacKinnon does in her discussion?

Admittedly, there is porn that is catered to people who enjoy portrayals of rape and abuse. MacKinnon may have a point when it comes to porn that projects abuse, torture, rape, or other social ills. This, I imagine, is not the aim nor the purpose of all the porn that is out there. Yes, porn’s mere existence thrives on objectification, but I’d question whether the aim of this objectification is at all times patriarchal or repressive. Furthermore, when it comes to the existence of pornography that is catered to women or gay men, do we necessarily want to imply that these genres also perpetuate the same exact ideals and ideologies that MacKinnon presents in her discussion? I do not have a concrete answer to this question, but others certainly do.

What I found so innovative and refreshing about Habib’s views is that he approaches porn, and specifically gay porn, as a medium that is intricately tied to the LGBTQ rights movement. Through Habib’s perspective, porn is not viewed as an agent of repression or patriarchal objectification, but rather, it is viewed as a liberatory or emancipatory agent that gives a voice, and a sense of belonging, to those that live within the socio-cultural margins of society. As Habib himself puts it:

Where I grew up, just outside of Allentown, PA, I watched, right through my adolescence into adulthood and early college years, while straight people paired off and experienced sex. They were able to engage with a basic aspect of human life that seemed unavailable and distant to me. Unlike today, there was no discussion about gay marriage, nor were there many gay characters on TV. But even if there had been, neither would have rounded out my experience as a man with homosexual feelings because so many of those feelings were — unsurprisingly for a young man — sexual. Gay sex was a lonely venture. It wasn’t easy to find, and was only mentioned in slurs and the butt of jokes. “Cocksucker” and “butt fucker” were insults; stand-ins for “faggot.”

Whether I bought it from the adult video store or, later, downloaded it, gay porn helped me encounter positive images of gay men enjoying the act of sex. Gay porn was a window into gay sexuality that was free of shame and guilt, and revealed a different world where sex wasn’t a lonely prospect, confined to the shadows or just my imagination. (Why Are We Afraid…)

Conner Habib makes some very interesting assertions about the freeing nature of gay pornography, assertions that only increase in intensity when bringing in notions and conceptions of race. As a performer of Arab descent, Habib admits to receiving countless letters and feedback from countries in which homosexuality is criminalized, for he portrays sex in a way that is free, unrestricted, and honest. Thus, from their perspective, gay porn is viewed as a Utopian fantasy that, according to Habib, provides a sense of empowerment and fosters a sense of imagination. Although from this perspective porn can be harmful in that it fosters a desire for that which is not lawfully permissible, I do agree with Habib’s views of gay porn being able to spark empowerment (and perhaps resistance to the status quo?) .

In due course, Conner Habib points out that an acceptance of LGBTQ individuals entails not only an acceptance of their public lives, but also of their private lives. This is no easy task, especially when focusing on the private nature of sex, generally speaking. Regardless, I think that Habib does add a lot to the conversation of pornography within academia, and he is pushing us to ask ourselves questions that need to be addressed. Furthermore, part of understanding gender, and even more so, part of understanding culture and society in general, entails an exploration of the good, the bad, the ugly… the private and the public… the “speakable” and the unspeakable.

Perhaps porn and academia should collide more often, especially if we’re not comfortable with the collision in the first place. Just that fact that it provokes discomfort gives us much to say about culture and the human condition in the first place.

Do You Hate Your Body? Western Culture, Gender, and Body Issues

Working Out

“Perfection” has its price… and when it comes to bodily perfection, this price can never be fully paid.

Some of the most awkward and disturbing conversations that I’ve had about the body have taken place during a meal. There is something about sharing food with company that ignites interesting topics of conversation as pertained to our body, nature, and food. I recall one particular instance in which I went over a friend’s house for dinner. She had a couple of guests over who were preparing a make-your-own-taco buffet. We sat down on the table and began circulating the bowls full of shredded chicken, cheese, sour cream, salsa, flour tortillas, and yellow rice. I placed two tortillas on my plate and began to scoop some shredded chicken on the tortillas when I noticed one of my friend’s guests staring at me with a look of horror on her face.

“Oh my god!” she said. “Are you going to eat ALL OF THAT?!” A confused look spread over my face. I didn’t think I was eating much, but according to my guest, two tacos was beyond extravagant. A feeling of awkwardness spread across the table. I lost my appetite. The two tacos remained on the plate, virtually untouched.

It was no secret that my friend’s guest was known for having body-image issues. Between her unstable diet and her insane workout regimen, it was a miracle that she seemed so lively and healthy. This was not the first time she made a weird or rude comment regarding food. Who could forget the time she called out my friend for eating an entire bowl of cocoa pebbles? Or the time she offered to serve us dessert, and served each one of us a 1×1″ square of brownie with a tablespoon of vanilla ice-cream on top, insisting that we must not exaggerate? But it this taco incident that truly affected me negatively, and it awoke feelings in me that were dormant for a long time.

I’ve always had issues with my body. I’ve  always been overweight (not obese, but I certainly have extra meat on my bones), I have crooked teeth, one of my eyes is slightly bigger than the other, and yes, I have a huge nose. But over the years, I had learned to grow comfortable with my body, and I had learned to accept the fact that I deviate from normal and beautiful expectations of the body. But that taco moment really scarred me in an unprecedented way. I took the comment to be a remark on my weight and my appearance. That night, when I returned home, I stared at myself in front of the mirror. I felt disgust. I felt worthless. The head of my friend’s guest circulated around my mind, mockingly asking me if I was “going to eat ALL OF THAT!”

I don’t even think we can begin to understand just how much culture affects our interpretation and perception of the human body. We live with such an immense pressure to be perfect and desirable. This desire is so intense that it completely overshadows even the most basic of biological needs: food, sex, and even rest. It comes as no surprise that because of these unrealistic cultural expectations, we have pathological phenomena such as bulimia, anorexia, among others.

These pathological phenomena are usually seen as purely negative and evil cultural manifestations. However, some reading that I have been doing during the past weeks is pushing me to question the extent to which diseases such as anorexia and bulimia are purely evil. I think we rarely seek liberation and emancipation in cultural expressions that seem subversive, violent, and even dangerous. Furthermore, I think that a dichotomous view of the word always limits our capacity to deal with notions such as morality: we either view things as entirely good or entirely bad, refusing to see the gray area that exists in between. However, I think that we’re all very well aware of the fact that the gray area tends to possess the most powerful explanatory power when it comes to grappling with difficult or controversial topics.

Does anorexia have a “positive side”? Can anorexia, despite its danger, be viewed as emancipatory? Can issues of the body be viewed as a type of protest? Feminist scholars such Susie Orbach, and Susan Bordo in her discussion of the body and the reproduction of femininity in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body discuss the plausibility of  this notion. As pointed out by Bordo in her discussion:

A number of feminist writers, […] have interpreted anorexia as a species of unconscious feminist protest. The anorectic is engaged in a “hunger strike,” as Orbach calls it, stressing that this is a political discourse, in which the action of food refusal and dramatic transformation of body size “expresses with [the] body what [the anorectic] is unable to tell us with words”–her indictment of a culture that disdains and suppresses female hunger, makes women ashamed of their appetites and needs, and demands that women constantly work on the transformation of their body. (463)

Keep in mind that Bordo and Orbach are in no way justifying anorexia , and they are certainly not pushing people to view this pathological manifestation as a solution. Anorexia is unfortunate and very dangerous. However, they do suggest that people who do suffer from this pathology certainly convey an interesting bodily rhetoric, in which their condition is not only symptomatic of cultural pressures and expectations, but it is also illustrates everything that is downright wrong within contemporary culture. Sure, people suffering from anorexia and bulimia are not conscious of this protest, but their body serves as a walking indication that something is very wrong when it comes to the aspirations that culture pushes us to strive for.

The expectations of perfection when it comes to the body are so pervasive that they have transcended beyond the realm of the feminine. It is well known that anorexia, and body issues, are not exclusive when it comes to gender. Men, myself included, are also expected to achieve a degree of physical and bodily perfection, else we suffer from feeling worthless and ugly under the guise of contemporary culture. You are expected to have well-defined muscles, but you can’t have too much muscle because that’s too excessive. You can’t be too thin. You can’t be fat. You have to have short hair, a six-pack, a slender waist, a stoic stance. Yes, men these days have just as many expectations as women do when it comes to their bodies.

Jackson Whittemore, a character from MTV's Teen Wolf, in a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Jackson Whittemore (played by Colton Haynes), a character from MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is a screenshot taken a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. Notice that this show is aimed primarily at a young adult audience (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Popular shows watched by young audiences, such as MTV’s smash show Teen Wolf, definitely perpetuate this notion of physical perfection, especially when it comes to their depiction and glorification of the male body. Now, I’m not saying this is a purely terrible thing. After all, “eye-candy,” a well-sculpted body, is indeed awe-inspiring and impressive (and it sure makes us feel wonderful in many ways), but what message is being sent when all of the men and women present within the show are beautiful, physically fit, and well-groomed? It sets unrealistic expectations. I, for one, will never look like Colton Haynes when I step out of the shower. I’ve accepted that fact.

When we are surrounded by frail bodies that are wasting away, walking skeletons that seem to be only a few steps away from death itself… there is definitely a scream for help being shouted at the face of culture itself. Sure, anorexia can be approached as a form of protest, but it’s a protest that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s disturbing, as Bordo points out, that “The pathologies of female protest function, paradoxically, as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produce them, reproducing rather than transforming precisely that which is being protested” (464). The “protest” doesn’t fight against the pathology, but rather, it perpetuates it. The so-called solution that culture has rendered, the so-called protest, only feeds the cultural monster of the body in Western culture. And this sense of pathology, as I pointed out above, now goes beyond the production of femininity. It is a problem that is now blind to gender.

But now that we are aware of the problems and paradoxes of body and its relationship to Western culture, how do we even begin to solve them? We need to reconsider not only our theories and approaches towards gender and the body, but also the practices that we engage in as a response to these issues.

References:

Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 460 – 466.

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The XY Factor: NBC’s “The New Normal” and the Nature/Culture Dichotomy

Within the last couple of months, I’ve been watching a sitcom on NBC titled The New Normal, which offers a fresh and daring reconfiguration of the traditional family. The show centers on Bryan and David, a committed gay couple, and Goldie, a single mother who decides to become David and Bryan’s gestational surrogate. In every episode, we see not only the trials and tribulations of surrogacy, but we also come to understand how the notion of family is rapidly changing in our present day and age.

Cast of "The New Normal"

Main cast of NBC’s “The New Normal”

There is one episode of this show titled “The XY Factor” that made me think deeply about the issue of the cultural and natural “split” that exists between women and men, and the implications of this split when it comes to gay couples who desire to expand their families. In this particular episode, Bryan and David find out that they are expecting to have a boy. This discovery deeply upsets Bryan because he does not engage in practices that reflect traditional masculinity. Bryan, who works as a television producer, tends to express characteristics that are typically feminine, such as a penchant for fashion, interior design, and pop culture. Bryan’s partner David, on the other hand, tends to engage in activities that are deemed more masculine: he watches sports, he coaches a junior football team, and unlike Bryan, his sense of style style is plain and subtle. Bryan’s desire for a girl rather than a boy stems from the fact that he believes that it will be more difficult for him to connect to a boy due to his so-called deviance from traditional masculinity. This fear of a possible lack of connection also stems from the fact that Bryan is not the child’s biological father since David is the sperm donor.

This episode instantly came to mind when reading Sherry B. Ortner’s discussion titled Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture, in which she posits that women are universally assumed to be more aligned to nature than men are. Due to the fact that culture is generally deemed superior to the nature in the sense that it tries to control and manipulate the natural, it comes to no surprise that women, and all expressions associated with the feminine, are seen as inferior.

Ortner’s ideas allude to theories postulated by Simone de Beauvoir and within the realm of  anthropology in order to highlight women’s association with the natural rather than the cultural. Among these ideas, Ortner points out that woman’s body and its functions (menstruation, childbirth, etc.) manifest women’s “animality” and align them to the natural, while men usually engage in practices that drift away from the domestic sphere and into the cultural sphere. Ortner furthermore posits that even when women tend to engage in cultural practices such as cooking, these practices are limited to the domestic sphere and they don’t extend to the realm of high culture. Ortner exemplifies this notion by illustrating how many women are the cooks within the home, but that men are mostly dominant when it comes to haute cuisine or avant guarde cooking.

Ortner also views woman’s ties with the domestic circle as a factor that associates her with nature. The constant association of women with children is part of the reason why, due to the fact that “infants are barely human and utterly unsocialized” (215), and are thus viewed as natural or animalistic beings. Ortner points out that woman’s association with the domestic context increases their association with a lower order of social organization, while men are free to pursue cultural endeavors because they lack a natural basis for “familial orientation”:

the family (and hence woman) represents lower-level, socially fragmenting, particularistic sort of concerns, as opposed to interfamilial relations representing higher-level, integrative, universalistic sorts of concerns. Since men lack a “natural” basis (nursing, generalized to child care) for a familial orientation, their sphere of activity is defined at the level of interfamilial relations. And hence, so the cultural reasoning seems to go, men are the “natural” proprietors of religion, ritual, politics, and other realms of cultural thought and action in which universalistic statements of spiritual and social synthesis are made. (216)

I was curious as to how the interdependent dichotomies of woman/man and nature/culture manifest in the case of a gay couple trying to start a family via surrogacy. Interestingly, the tensions depicted in this episode offered some very interesting insights when juxtaposed with Ortner’s perspectives. I noticed that the notion of having a boy was threatening to Bryan because he deemed that it would hinder his chances at connecting with his child, especially since he shares no biological connection to the child. Notice that if Bryan were a woman within a heteronormative relationship, this threat would be virtually non-existent, for regardless of the child’s gender, the fact that the woman gives birth automatically triggers a natural connection between the mother and the child.

Bryan takes over David's position as junior football coach in order to align himself towards the male end of the female/male spectrum.

Bryan takes over David’s position as junior football coach in order to align himself towards the male end of the female/male spectrum.

Bryan assumes that if the child were a girl, he would have no trouble connecting with her because he exhibits tendencies and affinities that are traditionally viewed as feminine. However, the fact that he is expecting a boy induces him to believe that he must align himself with the male part of the spectrum in order for his child to love him. In the episode, Bryan tries to achieve this alignment by taking over David’s position as a junior football coach, and he fails miserably. Thus, Bryan finds himself unable to comply with neither the cultural nor the natural demands that are expected from him as a parent.

We may perceive that Ortner’s dichotomies still sustain when applied to a gay relationship, which is why it is difficult to situate Bryan as a man and as a character. But, something very interesting occurs near the end of the episode. One of David’s football practices is cancelled due to bad weather, and he ends up bringing all of the boys to his home. Bryan then prepares a “make your own pizza party,” in which every kid cooks and prepare their own meal (wearing their very own chef’s hats). The party is a success, and Bryan realizes that even though he is expecting a boy, he can still find ways to establish a connection with the child–regardless of whether or not they share a “natural” connection.

Bryan and David watch as the junior football team enjoys Bryan's "plan your own pizza party."

Bryan and David watch as the junior football team enjoys Bryan’s “plan your own pizza party.”

This conclusion to the episode offers some very tantalizing ideas and suggestions. First and foremost, we see boys becoming active agents within the realm of the domestic, and in tandem, we seem them cross into the realm of the feminine and the natural. Secondly, we see that Bryan, rather than “succumbing” to the demands of his alignment between culture and the natural, acts as a mediator within this spectrum, highlighting the ultimate collapse and futility of this divide. By bringing cultural agents into the realm of the domestic, and by at least trying to break ground in the masculine practice of football, we see how a man is able to take part in the project of “creativity and transcendence” that is so important in the feminist movement.

Ultimately, this show offers a lot of food for thought when it comes to issues of gender and family. I shall continue to follow its development closely!

Source:

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 211 – 220

My Syllabus for Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric – Notre Dame – Spring 2013

Here is the syllabus that I designed for the Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric course that I will teach during the spring 2013 semester at the University of Notre Dame. I think this will be the most daring and innovative writing course that I’ve ever taught. As you will notice, I include a lot of non-traditional assignments that really push students to take advantage of the possibilities of new media and current multimedia platforms. Students will write movie reviews, analyze and create memes, design an original product and create an infomercial for it, and they’ll even create their own audio-narratives. I really think this course will be fun for both my students and I, and I’m sure plenty of effective learning will take place!

I’m using a popular culture theme once again, but this time, we’re focusing on this theme from an ethical perspective. Students will not only explore the virtues of popular culture, but through their writing and creation of multimedia artifacts, they will discover the importance of ethics and virtues in the exchange and circulation of knowledge and information. As always, all comments and suggestions are more than welcome. Enjoy!

On Uncertainty and Fear

When I took a survey of early English literature as an undergrad, I inevitably had to tackle a text that virtually every English major is bound to encounter during their studies: Beowulf. During our discussion of the text, my professor and friend, Dr. Nickolas Haydock, asked us why the text’s infamous creature (Grendel) instilled so much fear to other characters within the text, and presumably, to the reader. After much debate and speculation, Dr. Haydock looked at us with a stern face and said: “Grendel instills fear because so little is known about him.”

Prior to that moment, I never really approached fear as a lack of knowledge. However, something within that idea resonated within me, perhaps because it alludes to a simple and indisputable truth: we all fear the unknown, and when we are forced to confront it, inner chaos and turmoil ensue. When something can be explained or understood, it loses its capacity to frighten and to stir negative emotions.

I think horror movies are a good example of this notion. For instance, John Carpenter’s 1978 movie Halloween scared millions of viewers, not only because it included the obvious thrills and scares, but also because the movie’s villain–the one and only Michael Myers– remains a mystery. Why was he troubled? What was his motive to kill? We are never offered answers to these questions. Michael Myers could ostensibly be anyone. Fast-forward to 2007, a year in which Rob Zombie re-imagined the film and gave Michael Myers a back-story and the motive. The sense of enigma that electrified the fear in the original movie became nothing but an undetectable spark in the remake.

I invoked the notion of fear for a reason. Sure, Halloween is just around the corner and mischief is in the air, but I encountered fear distilled through an unexpected source: Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Sure, we encounter fear that is portrayed in a typical fashion–we are unaware of what is going on throughout the development of the plot, we are unable to explain the strange occurrences happening within the San Dominick, and we encounter a strange, seemingly symbiotic relationship between a white Spanish captain and a “meek” African slave. But the novella as a whole invoked another sense of fear: the fear of uncertainty.

This text was extremely slow, especially when considering that it is in essence a maritime narrative. However, towards the end, I expected a payoff for my efforts–I expected all the pieces to fit together. And  things definitely made more sense with the “grand reveal,” or should I say, with the “removal of the canvas.” But even though the pieces are put together, I am still left in the dark, and I am unable to envision the entire picture. Benito Cereno continues to be bizarre and nonsensical. It refuses to fit itself in a mold, and it refuses to provide direct and concrete answers.

What makes Benito Cereno so fearful is its ambiguity–its refusal to be explained, especially when approaching the issue of race. The more I think I come closer to determining the meaning and the root of the racial tensions in the novella, the less I become certain with my convictions. Race in American 19th Century literature is indeed a provoking ambiguity, especially when focusing on race as an empancipatory dialectic. I think this definitely became clear as I paid attention to a course discussion on Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Do we want to claim that the elimination of the interracial couple from the novel’s equation was an affirmation of Cooper’s racism, or do we want to view it as an emancipatory affirmation? Consider how this notion becomes polemical when we realize that Cooper puts so much effort into infusing exorbitant amounts of pathos into these two doomed characters.

I think a similar issue manifests within Benito Cereno, but the voltage of this issue is increased tenfold. We see a reversal of the white owner – black slave binary, and Melville depicts a “world” in which the white slave succumbs to the wishes of the black master. And indeed, I think it is easy for some readers to find the actions of the slaves questionable, manipulative and revolting. After all, they successfully managed to overthrow the Spanish colonists and turn the remaining survivors into puppets. I can only begin to imagine how one of Melville’s contemporary readers would’ve approached the topic: they either would’ve been shocked or completely disgusted. But is something worthwhile achieved by shocking the audience? Will it lead them to realize that the actions of these slaves are no different to the actions committed by white slave masters?

I think it’s easier for today’s readers to feel much more sympathy for the enslaved Africans (I certainly did). After all, they were taken against their will from their homeland in order to attend to the needs of someone from a different racial and cultural background. Talk about abuses of power! Modern readers would probably view the slaves’ actions as completely justifiable and Karmic.

But, to justify their actions is to justify murder, is it not? Perhaps both the white Spaniards and the slaves should be scrutinized critically, but then again, wasn’t it the Spaniards who ripped out the African natives from their homeland in the first place? What we are observing here is a struggle between power and blame, and it’s interesting to see how power circulates through the members of the San Dominick in an almost Foulcaudian fashion. I know that we now live in the time where the notion of the “death of the author” predominates, and that a once a text is circulated, it no longer belongs to its writer. However, I can’t help but speculate what Melville’s views towards race were, and what conceptions of race he was trying to project in the narrative. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to pin this down.

I think that this difficulty is due mostly to the metamorphosing depiction of both races throughout the progression of the novella. At first, Melville seems to depict both whites and blacks in a very egalitarian fashion:

While left alone with them, he was not long in observing some things tending to heighten his first impressions; but surprise was lost in pity, both for the Spaniards and blacks, alike evidently reduced from scarcity of water and provisions; while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them. But under the circumstances, precisely this condition of things was to have been anticipated. In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery. (170)

Notice that the lack of provisions and of material necessities such as food as put both blacks and whites on the same level: misery and suffering provides a bind that makes them equal. On that boat, they are all beings capable of suffering. Misery in this ship leads blacks to increase power while causing whites to lose it. But notice as well that Melville clearly depicts this leveling between the slaves and the Spaniards as a natural disorder–a parody of how things should “naturally” be. Is Melville trying to be satirical? Is he trying to be emancipatory? Is he critical? Or is he simply embracing the attitudes predominant during the time? It’s nearly impossible to tell… it seems to be deliberately ambiguous. This sense of uncertainty is simply frightening.

The ambiguity of race attitudes is manifested in other parts of the novella as well, particularly in the instance in which Captain Delano witnesses one of the oakum-pickers striking a Spanish boy with a knife simply because he did not like a word that this boy used. Once again, the act can indeed be interpreted as transgressive, but is this any different from the way slaves were typically treated by whites? Captain Delano is obviously appalled with this occurrence: “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed” (180). However, we see that Benito Cereno approaches the event with a degree of nonchalance, stating that the action “was merely the sport of the lad” (180). Indeed, I thought at first that Melville was once again peppering the narrative with hints of egalitarianism: whites deserve to be treated equally to how the slaves are treated. But this sense of equality ultimately becomes moot when we figure out that Cereno was making no big deal of the situation because the slaves threatened him. What I first thought was liberation was actually the exertion of power disguised as goodwill.

I fear that there is no solution to how Melville approached the creation of Benito Cereno, and the purpose behind its crafting will forever be unknowable. That is the fallacy of speculation: it’s simply difficult to reach a solid conclusion. Not knowing is indeed uncomfortable… but it is precisely this invocation of fear that leads to critical thinking. What answers or insights are provided by the act of NOT knowing? Even more importantly, are knowing and not knowing binary constructs, or is there something in between these two concepts that we are unable to see? Isn’t that an ultimate manifestation of the fear of the unknown… that the knowledge we use to interpret the world prevents us from finding or even being able to perceive gray areas?

Perhaps Melville didn’t have an exact purpose when it came to race. Perhaps he simply wanted to confuse us. Perhaps he wanted us to struggle in a way that he struggled in his own life. I think it is safe to say that the unknown definitely frightened Melville, and in due course, it made him miserable. With that in mind, it is no wonder that this story relaxes “good order.”

References:

Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales by Herman Melville

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