Foucault and the History of Sexuality: A “Queer” Overview

If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom.

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality – Volume I (p. 6)

Although Michel Foucault did not work within an established queer theory framework, he is undoubtedly one of the most important precursors to queer theory and the study of gender. His ideas and approaches not only helped to develop a useful framework to understand and contest normativity, but I would go as far as to posit that the ideas discussed in the three volumes of The History of Sexuality have become integrated with the gestalt of human culture and consciousness. His work has enabled conversations of the constructed nature of sexuality and the role of power, culture, and society in this construction. Furthermore, his work has served as a theoretical platform for prominent queer theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butlter. Foucault’s ideas have particularly helped Butler to approach gender as a construction, and to develop the concept of performativity as a way of exemplifying how language and discourse are reiterated in order to produce the very phenomena that discourse regulates and controls. Performativity is a very Foucaldian notion, developed partially from Foucault’s concept of genealogy (derived from Nietzsche’s approach), which outlines the development of discourses not on the basis of their linearity, but rather, on their relationships, their paradoxes, and their fixations.

The History of Sexuality is in essence, a three-volume study of sexuality, power, and regulation in the Western World. The most influential of these volumes is the first, often referred to as the introduction of the study. This first volume focuses its attention on attacking the preconception that discourses of sex were suppressed during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and how sex was very much an integral component of religious, scientific, and political conversations.

As mentioned previously, one of the most influential ideas discussed within this first volume was the notion of sexuality as a construct with social and cultural origins. This very much went against essentialist views of sexuality, in which sexual desire was exclusively deemed to be a naturally or biologically driven phenomenon. Foucault does a similar move in terms of approaching power as a hegemonic distribution that is not inherently present within a being or a thing, but rather, that is generated through discourse and through complex relationships that defy easy categorizations. Although to some extent sexuality is based on biology and desire, Foucault stresses that ultimately, these biological drives are shaped and influenced by institutions and discourses, thus creating the phenomenon of sexuality. The notion of sexuality as a construct inspired Foucault’s contemporaries and successors to focus their attention not on what produces sexuality, but rather, on what sexuality produces.

Another prominent concept discussed within the first volume of The History of Sexuality is the development of Scientia Sexualis, which is the introduction and proliferation of sexuality into psychoanalytic, political, and scientific discourse—which in turn illustrates the spread of sexual discourse despite its supposed repression prior to the 20th century. Psychoanalysis, for instance, focused much of its attention on ascertaining the source of sexuality through the processes of confession and truth-sharing. Confession has important connotations in terms of sexuality, its religious contexts, and even its contemporary contexts (as Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, confession is crucial in terms of the coming out process that queer individuals face during their day-to-day lives). Because of the linkage between confession and sexuality, sexuality becomes closely associated to discourse, and consequently, truth. As Foucault posits, the evasive scientific discourse of sexuality

set itself up as the supreme authority in matters of hygienic necessity, taking up the old fears of venereal affliction and combining them with the new themes of asepsis, and the great evolutionist myths with the recent institutions of public health; it claimed to ensure the physical vigor and the moral cleanliness of the social body; it promised to eliminate defective individuals, degenerate and bastardized populations. In the name of a biological and historical urgency, it justified the racisms of the state, which at the time were on the horizon. It grounded them in “truth.” (54)

Because of the linkage of sexuality to truth, sexuality developed into a marker of identity. In other words, the practice of sexuality became tethered to truth, thus becoming an ontological categorization no different from racial or ethnic typologies. In order to evidence this notion, Foucault alludes the invention of the concept of homosexuality (and in tandem, the invention of the homosexual), arguing once again that homosexuality was not discovered, but rather, produced through dialectical exchange: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43).

Although it is known that people engaged in same-sex relationships prior to the invention of the concept of homosexuality, this ontological category encouraged people to identify themselves or to view others as homosexual. The emergence of homosexuality as a “species” led to unfortunate developments, such as the classification of homosexuality as a pathology that had to be suppressed or regulated. It also led to the demonization of sexualities that were not deemed to be “productive.” It is here that we begin to see the roots of what Lee Edelman would call reproductive futurity, in which procreation is deemed necessary to meet the needs of a system based on production, capitalism, and futurity. Society’s increasing linkage to capitalism, thus, incremented the need of reproductive futurity in order to assure that the capitalist machine continues to run smoothly:

There emerged the analysis of the modes of sexual conduct, their determinations and their effects at the boundary line of the biological and the economic domains. There also appeared those systematic campaigns which going beyond the traditional means–moral and religious exhortations, fiscal measures–tried to transform the sexual conduct of couples into a concerted economic and political behavior. (26)

The 19th century, in particular, witnessed the emergence of doctrines and scientific approaches that had an intense focus on eradicating or handling forms of sexuality that deviated from the notion of reproductive futurity. Crucial to the development of identity politics, Foucault discusses how the categorization of homosexuality led to the emergence of a reverse discourse that challenged the negative valences associated with individuals who were now approached as homosexuals. Although people labeled as homosexuals did deal with negative effects due to the pathological nature of their categorization, this opened up the opportunity for these communities to have a voice. Homosexuality thus began to defend itself as a legitimate mode of existence, demanding its social and cultural recognition. Discursively, the fact that homosexuality was pathologized inevitably led many to conclude that homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon—homosexuals are, as Lady Gaga would put it, “born that way.” The reverse discourse generated by the advent of homosexuality goes on to exemplify the circuitous nature of power established by Foucault, in which every instance of power also presents some form of resistance.

To what extent can Lady Gaga’s Born This Way be approached as a form of discursive resistance?

Volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, respectively titled The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, focus more on earlier establishments of culture that surfaced before the advent of Western modernity—particularly Greek and Roman cultures. Within volume II, Foucault addresses how Christianity changed the Western view of sexuality and partnership not only from a moral stance, but also from an ethical stance:

it will be said that Christianity associated [sexuality’ with evil, sin, the Fall, and death, whereas antiquity invested it with positive symbolic values. Or the definition of the legitimate partner: it would appear that, in contrast to what occurred in Greek and Roman societies, Christianity drew the line at monogamous marriage and laid down the principle of exclusively procreative ends within that conjugal relationship. Or the disallowance of relations between individuals of the same sex: it would seem that Christianity strictly excluded such relationships, while Greece exalted them and Rome accepted them, at least between men. (14)

While it may initially seem that Christianity completely radicalized sexuality, Foucault posits that there is actually a continuity between “paganism” and Christianity in terms of the discourses of sex. A particularly illuminating example was the image of same-sex relationships. In the 19th century, homosexuals were pathologized as “inverts” and were deemed to have stereotypical and feminized behaviors and traits. The term invert actually alludes to an inversion of the subject’s sexual role–a motif that was very much present in Greco-Roman literature, in which the young boys who donned the passive role are approached as spineless, delicate, and ornamental. Foucault posits that

It would be completely incorrect to interpret this as a condemnation of love of boys, or of what we generally refer to as homosexual relations; but at the same time, one cannot fail to see in it the effect of strongly negative judgments concerning some possible aspects of relations between men, as well as a definite aversion to anything that might denote a deliberate renunciation of the signs and privileges of the masculine role. (19)

Thus, although same-sex relationships were deemed to be “freer” in Greco-Roman cultures, one can still genealogically trace negative valences towards homosexuality–thus exemplifying the discursive nature of sexuality even before the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, when comparing Greco-Roman cultures to later European cultures, there are some differences in terms of how sexuality was approached from a moral, ethical, and stance. Within volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, the notion of individuality is quite important, especially when it came to its conjunction with concepts such as ethics and morality. Interestingly, morality in Greco cultures was not viewed as a norm or a standard under which people had to comply, but rather, it was viewed as a relationship between the individual and the self—thus making ethics an individualized process rather than a struggle of the individual versus society:

moral conceptions in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of [severe self-discipline] than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden. If exception is made of the Republic and the Laws, one finds very few references to the principle of a code that would define in detail the right conduct to maintain, few references to the need for an authority charged with seeing to its application, few references to the possibility of punishments that would sanction infractions. (31)

However, the advent of Christianity broke with this individualistic model of the moral and ethical world. Christianity, according to Foucault, produces the meaning of sex rather than focusing its attention on the meanings sex produces—thus making Christianity a regulating and hegemonic force. In these latter volumes, it is of utmost importance to keep in mind that Foucault has hesitation in terms of approaching sexuality, ethics, and individuality through the perspective of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. This is because he does not necessarily approve of them in their entirety—especially when it comes to their perspective of who can or cannot be an individual (slaves and women, for instance, were very much excluded from being approached as individuals).

There is much more to be said in terms of the rich concepts and ideas discussed in Foucault’s work, but it is my hope that this overview has given you a substantial look at the most prominent ideas and concepts discussed in The History of Sexuality–especially the ideas that I deem most useful for queer theory and gender studies.

You can purchase The History of Sexuality by clicking here (Volume 1), here (Volume 2), or here (Volume 3).

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume II: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Male Prostitution and [The Hunger Games] – The Case of Finnick Odair

Mockingjay Book Cover

Perhaps one of the most shocking moments of Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay is when the reader finds out that Finnick Odair–a past victor of the Hunger Games tournament who is attractive and always surrounded by suitors–reveals that he was sold and used as a sex slave for wealthy patrons residing in the Capitol. This confession is broadcasted across the dystopic nation of Panem in order to further fan the flames of hatred towards President Snow, the trilogy’s ruthless dictator. Although the novel makes no explicit mention of the terms “prostitution” or “sexual slavery,” the fact that Finnick was “pimped” is made quite obvious. As Finnick himself declares while broadcasting his confession:

“President Snow used to… sell me… my body, that is,” Finnick begins in a flat removed tone. “I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it.” (Collins, emphasis mine)

What we observe in this instance is that Finnick becomes a commodity used to satisfy the sexual appetite of the Capitol’s residents. His position can  be seen as a form of prostitution within this context  because there is an implied exchange of goods triggered through the sexual act.

Through this act of prostitution, there is no doubt that in due course, Finnick’s placement as a being coerced to sell his body to others dehumanizes him, turning him into an object designed for sexual satisfaction rather than a subject capable of making his own sexual choices.  This notion complies with Catherine A. Mackinnon’s views of sexual objectification in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, in which she posits that “To be sexually objectified means having a social meaning imposed on your being that defines you as to be sexually used, according to your desired uses, and then using you that way” (422). Seeing as Finnick has no agency in terms of his sexual choices, objectification becomes a very apt term to describe his situation.

Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin in the 2013 movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin in the 2013 movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Suzanne Collins’s novel presents a situation that is not commonly discussed in society, much less in young adult fiction: men as sexual commodities, and the existence of male prostitution. This, in part, has to do much with the sexual division of labor that is many times imposed in society. Most of the theoretical and critical treatments of sexual objectification, including pornography and prostitution, are usually focused on the degradation of females as a way of reinforcing a patriarchal and chauvinistic status quo. But what happens in the case of a man who is sexually objectified and approached as a hedonistic commodity? I’m not sure I have the answer to this question, but Collins’s Mockingjay presents a unique treatment of this case.

Finnick Odair points out that sometimes he was sold to patrons for an extravagant price, but other times, he was literally offered as a gift. Gayle Rubin, in The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, focuses on how women many times are approached as a material good exchanged in a transaction. Although women are most certainly part of this transaction, they are not an active agent within this exchange, but rather, a conduit to this exchange: they become a gift, while the man in charge of facilitating the transaction becomes the giver. This exchange, as Rubin argues, solely the benefit of social organization to “men who are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges” (Rubin 243-244).

Mockingjay offers a paradigm in which the gender roles are reversed, primarily since the gift, in this case, is a man rather than a woman. Nonetheless, this notion of gifting still promotes the prominence of patriarchy and chauvinism seeing as it helps to cement President Snow’s authority over Panem and the Capitol, and it still allows him to have absolute control over social organization: through this process of gifting Finnick to patrons, Snow upholds his absolute authority (and hierarchy) over the “weaker” Finnick.

Interestingly, though, in Mockingjay, we observe how Finnick takes advantage of his lower position in order to regain some of the power that Snow tried to take away from him. In other words, he uses the very power that the Capitol and Snow possess in order to counterattack the system. As Finnick points out during his confession:

“I wasn’t the only one, but I was the most popular,” he says. “And perhaps the most defenseless, because the people I loved were so defenseless. To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewelry, but I found a much more valuable form of payment.” (Collins)

Finnick soon reveals that “secrets” became his preferred form of currency. Seeing as his patrons viewed him in as weak, delicate, and vulnerable, they shared no hesitation whatsoever to open up to Finnick and share their deepest and darkest secrets with him, touching upon every subject from the sexual to the economic. Secrets  were the currency that Finnick “saved” as a reservoir of personal power. Unfortunately, this power did not benefit him personally, but rather, it was usurped by District 13  as a way of intensifying hostility towards the Capitol. However, it is interesting to see how this power, despite coming from a morally corrupt source, was still able to be channeled for emancipatory means: secrets exposed the hypocrisy and decay of President Snow and the residents of the Capitol, which in due course helped to foster a thirst for rebellion against the very powers that converted Finnick into a sexual object.

References

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. (E-book version)

Mackinnon, Catherine A. “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.

Rubin,  Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.

Jacinto's Well (Pozo de Jacinto) in Isabela, Puerto Rico

Finding Meaning in a “Nihilistic” Ocean: A Brief Reflection on Thoreau’s “Cape Cod”

There is something about Thoreau that always pushes me to reflect deeply on my own set of experiences and memories. Reading Walden last semester was one of the highlights of my year, not only because his thoughts and opinions greatly resonate within my being, but also because this encounter with his work greatly highlighted the exciting and noteworthy results of combining empirical observations, philosophy, and the act of creative writing. Thoreau’s Cape Cod, a series of articles published posthumously (which in unison give it a novel-like quality), achieved a very similar effect to Walden despite of its so-called darker tone and seriousness. Although slightly somber and less “optimistic” (I’m not sure if this word is appropriate, but it’s the closest one I could come up with) than Walden, Cape Cod follows a similar format to the former, in which the exploration of a natural space leads to wonderful insights of the world and the human condition.

However, Cape Cod seems to delve deeper into the implications of the relationship between the human and the natural world, depicting it at times as a hybrid association, and other times as a hierarchical, power-driven liaison: humans are indeed powerless when compared to the scope and the sheer force of the natural world. This is perhaps exemplified best with the very opening of the novel, which discusses Thoreau’s encounter with the St. John shipwreck. The man-made vehicle was unable to withstand the power and impartiality of nature, and the humans who gathered around the scene in Cape Cod were helpless witnesses to this frigidity. It is in moments such as these that you truly understand the fragility and the complexities of living and thinking.

Jacinto's Well (Pozo de Jacinto) in Isabela, Puerto Rico

The chapters in Cape Cod that most stood out for me due to their discussion of the relationship between humanity and the natural world were the ones that discussed Thoreau’s experience at the beach. This, of course, is very subjective on my behalf, seeing as I grew up in an island. Beaches were consequently an integral part of my upbringing, and to be quite frank, being away from them for large periods of time while living in Indiana has affected me immensely. Above is a picture that I took of what is arguably my favorite place in the world: Jacinto’s Well, located in the town of Isabela in the island of Puerto Rico. The picture clearly doesn’t do justice to the sheer majesty and enchantment of the area: cliffs meet dunes of warm sand. Brutal waves roar and desperately try to climb the crevices within the mounds of rock. And yes, every once in a while, you may even see a sea turtle leaping from the waves into the vast blue aura of white and cerulean.

I would frequently visit this place during the night, where the majesty and grandeur of this place would increase tenfold… an open sea, an open sky, an open mind. Thoreau’s depictions of the beach vividly awakened my memories of the beach. I could smell the salt in the air. I felt the chill of encountering the blackness of the sea during a stormy night. I could feel the immense loneliness that manifests when confronting the sea one-on-one. And once again, as I recalled this set of experiences, I felt as if Thoreau were sitting right next to me, contemplating the exact same scenario, for his experiences of the beach were amazingly similar to my own. I guess that is indeed what makes good literature, is it not? Is not writing good literature the practice of aesthetically condensing experience and concatenating it with future generations?

I think I instantly connected with Thoreau when he described the opulence of the sea, especially when in contrast to the human body. The experience is almost paradoxical: as you stand in front of a stormy beach, or in front of a sea that is rough and poses the threat of danger, it is quite easy for you to feel lonely, terrified, insignificant, and impotent. Yet strangely, the combination of all of these ultimately makes you feel alive. Indeed, it is quite easy for you to delve into nihilistic thoughts and emotions during this experience, but there is an inevitable sense of connection with nature being fostered.

Indeed, we are nothing when compared to the scope of the sea, as Thoreau very well posits when he illustrates his first encounter with the Cape Cod beaches during stormy and unsettling weather: “A thousand men could not have seriously interrupted it, but would have been lost in the vastness of the scenery, as their footsteps in the sand” (28). How can this notion be comforting? How can we, as humans find comfort by feeling small and powerless? To make matters even more complicated, how about when we think of nature in an even greater scale? Are we nothing but an evanescent force within the grand scale of the universe, and have we all not sat down to contemplate that realistically speaking, we are nothing but a germ in the universal scale?

I am no psychoanalyst, but perhaps this joy, this contemplation, this awe, and this desire arises from a deep sense of wanting to belong to something bigger, to something grand. Confronting the ocean one-on-one, in this case, is no different to a religious experience or doctrine: we want to know that there is something bigger than us out there, and we want to believe that we ultimately can be part of it in one way or another. And notice that in order to achieve this union in most religious systems of belief, humans are required to die, or in more philosophical terms, the human must cease to exist. It is uncanny that in Cape Cod, Thoreau himself seems to indirectly discuss this aspect of transcendence through death via the encounter of a mangled pile of bones and flesh at the beach:

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them […]. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my sniveling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore, and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it. (47)

There are two brief comments I want to make of this passage. Note that Thoreau states that the dead body-parts have taken possession of the shore, meaning that these dead remnants were finally able to master or take control over the power of the ocean. However, this body is no longer a living agent, so rather than assuming control over nature through traditional means, the body took an almost Emersonian route of control in which power is obtained through submission. Thus, it is almost as if Thoreau were implying that power is obtained through yielding, a very different idea to what he posited in his discussion on civil disobedience (keep in mind, however, that in “Civil Disobedience” he deals with socio-political forces whereas in Cape Cod, he deals with natural ones). Secondly, note that this encounter with the dead body alludes to an argument that Thoreau posited in the first chapter of Cape Cod titled “The Shipwreck,” in which he posits that “It is the individual and private that demands our sympathy” (8).

Unsurprisingly, Thoreau’s encounter with a single body (or arguably, a bone) affected him more than his encounter with an entire group of people who passed away on the shipwreck. Although I am not entirely clear as to why the individual and the private invokes more sympathy, it can be argued that this sympathy alludes to the value of individualistic experience as a form of transcendence. Seeing as death is perhaps the loneliest of processes, and seeing as the ocean invokes individualistic musings, perhaps Thoreau is intentionally trying to bridge the similarities between a humanistic and a natural experience, therefore continuing to challenge and complicate the circulation of power and control between the human and the natural world.

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Source:

Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod (Digireads edition)

Revealing the Man beneath the “Negro”

In a previous post, I discussed issues of race in Melville’s Benito Cereno, and this week, I couldn’t help but return to the depiction of race in Melville’s works. Now, Melville’s The Confidence-Man was indeed as challenging and perplexing as I thought it would be; after all, most of Melville’s works are characterized for being “devious,” ambiguous, and downright difficult. One of the most complex characters within this narrative was the “Black Guinea,” a crippled African American beggar who ostensibly was a free slave. The narrative strongly suggests that Guinea was one of the personas donned by the Confidence-Man, seeing as it was he who listed some of the other personalities that the Confidence-Man embodied, and seeing as Guinea was accused of being an impostor—a white man pretending to be a crippled beggar of African lineage.

What caught my interest in the scenes where Guinea appears is that they say much about the perception of black people during Melville’s era. However, the perception of the African American race becomes an even more prominent and complex issue if we were to approach Guinea as a white impostor, for then, we are witnessing a white man performing and interpreting what he deems to be an accurate portrayal of blackness. Thus, within these scenes, we have blackness as distilled through three perspectives: Melville’s perspective as an author, the perspective of the white audience that surrounds the beggar (particularly the drover), and the perspective of the white man performing blackness.

What first caught my attention in terms of Guinea’s depiction and representation in The Confidence-Man was the fact that animal qualities and traits are used to describe his actions and his appearance. Guinea describes himself as “der dog widout a massa” [the dog without a master] (Melville 10). The drover states that Guinea’s appearance “seemed a dog, so now, in a merry way, like a dog he began to be treated” (Melville 11), and he even goes as far as to compare Guinea’s physical traits to that of a “Newfoundland-dog” (Melville 13). Guinea’s animalistic depiction, however, is not limited to descriptions of a canine persuasion. When Guinea shivers as he recalls the harshness of the winter cold, he moves himself into the crowd, resembling “a half-frozen black sheep nudging itself a cosy berth in the heart of the white flock” (Melville 11). Even as Guinea tries to entertain the crowd in order to “earn” cash from the surrounding crowd, the drover points out that the beggar opens “his mouth like an elephant for tossed apples at a menagerie” (Melville 11-12).

What is clear is that these animalistic qualities are alluding to the fact that the beggar perceives himself as non-human or sub-human, for he belongs to a social hierarchy that is clearly different from the white folks that surround him. Although it may be argued that this notion of Guinea as an animal may be attributed to the fact that he is crippled, and not to the color of his skin, this assumption becomes moot with the presence of a wooden-legged man. Despite the fellow limper’s physical condition, he did not draw the attention that Guinea drew from the crowd, but rather, the Guinea’s position is so inferior that the wooden-legged man stumbles against him in a threatening position, demonstrating his superiority. Thus, although his crippled state attributes to his inferior position in society, it can be argued that Guinea’s animal depiction is attributed mostly to his skin color.

Melville’s choice to depict Guinea using animal qualities is indeed an interesting literary and semantic choice. After all, animals in literature, contrary to human characters, require little to no description in order to be “understood.” Whereas we expect human characters to be described in terms of personality, dress, conduct, and intellect, animals are stereotyped or pigeon-holed into particular molds and expectations: people know what to expect when elephants, sheep, or dogs are mentioned, and not a lot of effort must go into describing how they look like or how they act. Could it be that in the case of Melville’s novel, slaves and “negroes” were no different to animals in this aspect?

At first, Guinea does seem to live up to the 19th Century stereotype of the African slave, especially when concerned with his cheerful demeanor. Despite not having a home, a master, food, or currency, Guinea happily plays music with his tambourine and entertains the crowd—alluding to the perception of slaves being extremely happy people who constantly laughed and sang in spite of their horrible living conditions. However, the drover notes that Guinea was perhaps quite adept at acting and at hiding his emotions: “whatever his secret emotions, he swallowed them, while still retaining each copper this side of the [e]sophagus” (Melville 12). Guinea’s cheerful demeanor dissipates with the presence of the wooden-legged man, and he then begins to wail in defense of who he is, and why he deserves the crowd’s charity. Notice that Guinea also seems to possess a great deal of power, seeing as he is not afraid to challenge the people that surround him. When the crowd asks him to present documentation to prove his status, and when they question Guinea’s trustworthiness, the beggar repeatedly wails “have you no confidence in dis poor ole darkie?” (Melville 18), which serves to directly challenge the crowd’s perceptions and sense of charity to the less fortunate.

This is a poster titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee,” originally published in 1900. The poster illustrates a white man “transforming” into a black man, colloquially known as donning “black face.” Some characters within “The Confidence Man” question whether Guinea was a white man disguised as a black man simply because of the unrealistic and cartoonish (and downright racist) demeanor of white people who typically disguised themselves as African Americans.

Guinea thus engages in a slight appropriation of social power by alluding to the moral sympathies of the crowd, and he also disengages from the cheery and optimistic demeanor that slaves were deemed to don during the 19th century. This may be slightly problematized if we were to believe in the statement that Guinea is truly a white man in disguise, or even the Confidence-Man himself. If this notion of Guinea as an imposter were true, this supposed disruption of racial stereotypes and appropriation of social power loses its currency, for when it comes down to it, it is a white man who is undergoing the social negotiations performed by Guinea. Even more so, given the fact the Guinea is quite believable as a “negro” according to the perception of other characters, Melville could have been further perpetuating the stereotypes of blackness that existed during his time.

True, at first it may seem that Melville’s approach towards Guinea seems somewhat stereotypical, racist, and inhumane; but in turn, he highlights the hypocrisy that exists within 19th century perspectives of race. It is convenient to view Guinea as an animal until he requests the human virtue of charity—it is then that he is required to offer human proof that justifies his requests. Although Melville’s perspectives of race are perhaps as ambiguous in The Confidence-Man as they were in Benito Cereno, we must admit that the portrayal of Guinea in The Confidence-Man certainly opens up room for debate, racial emancipation, and the hypocrisies of racial stereotypes.

On a side note, I must confess that The Confidence-Man has been my least favorite Melville text up to now. I found it disjointed and nonsensical, and overall less enjoyable than his short stories. Some argue that Melville intended for the novel to be disjointed and full of gaps–an early example of a postmodern text. Postmodern or not, the book was too difficult and inaccessible for my own personal tastes.

Source:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0192837621/

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In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this post is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

This image titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee” is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On “Forgetting” Rifles and Sacred Texts

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius

Dover Thrift Edition of the Novel

In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, I was particularly interested in a debate that occurs between David Gamut and Hawkeye concerning religious belief versus pragmatic/empirical knowledge. David, extremely thankful that Hawkeye has just saved his life, praises the scout, claiming that his skills and his bravery prove that Hawkeye is indeed worthy of “Christian praise” (105). David then goes on to posit that divine providence played a role in the situation, and that in due course, some men are destined to be saved while others are destined to be damned. This assertion greatly discomforts Hawkeye, and he does nothing to conceal his disapproval of David’s claims.

Hawkeye asserts that the only reason he could credit himself with the murder of an enemy native was because he experienced the event firsthand, not because it was predestined to occur. What we are observing here is a clash between two different ideological views of the world: whereas David relies on faith, destiny, and the abstract to explain what happens in his surroundings, Hawkeye relies on evidence, experience, and empirical observation to deduce his claims (I killed the Huron native, therefore, I am responsible for what occurred).

Hawkeye assumes responsibility for his actions rather than attributing them to an unseen and unknowable force. Hawkeye’s reliance on personal experience triggers an interesting debate on the differences between textual evidence and experiential evidence: as soon as Hawkeye denies the plausibility of providence, David demands to know whether or not the scout’s claims can be supported by textual Biblical facts: “Name chapter and verse; in which of the holy books do you find language to support you?” (106).

Now, this is where the conversation gets extremely interesting. Hawkeye proceeds to denounce the value of books, stating that rather than relying on a set of words inscribed within a page, he has “forty long and hard-working years” (106) to back up his belief system and his pragmatic approach towards the world. He then mocks David’s views by asking whether his instruments and tools (his rifle, his bull horn, and his leather pouch) are being approached as if they were the passive instruments of a writer/scholar (the feather of a goose’s wing, a bottle of ink, a crossbarred handkercher)—implying that David is not viewing the scout as a rugged man of the wilderness. In a striking move, Hawkeye presents his disdain towards “men who read books to convince themselves there is a God” (106). I couldn’t help but recall Bruno Latour’s views of facts, fetishes, and “factishes” at this point, due to the importance of objects in this conversation, and their role in the construction of knowledge and belief.

Now, what may be noticeable in this conversation is that David definitely fetishizes (in a Latourian perspective) sacred texts and books, for although they are produced and crafted by a human being, the middle-man is forgotten and the object is approached as holy or divine. Belief and divine power are imbued within these textual objects, and their crafted nature is forgotten or simply ignored. Now, Hawkeye seems to be aware of this fetishization of the sacred texts (although he certainly wouldn’t use this term to describe his views), and thus, he deems David’s distorted view as silly or misconstrued. He doesn’t seem to project his belief on a certain object, but rather, his beliefs are projected from the self: something is only true if you are able to feel and experience it.

However, what Hawkeye is failing to see is the fact that his own experiences relied on a set of tools or instruments: without his rifle, Hawkeye wouldn’t have been able to undergo the particular experience of killing a Huron native (at least not in the way that it actually occurred). Without that object, it is questionable whether or not Hawkeye would’ve encountered the degree of success that he did in that moment. Thus, it can be argued that both David and Hawkeye are guilty of the same ‘sin’: David forgets the hand-crafted nature of the divine object, and Hawkeye forgets the role of the object in the definition of his experiences and perceptions.

The material and crafted nature of both the scriptures and the pistol are forgotten during the discussion between David and Hawkeye

What occurs in this situation is a failure to recognize that both figures see fault in the other’s beliefs, when objectively speaking, both systems beliefs are reliant on similar practices of fetishization and forgetting. This failure of recognition leads to a blocking of the communicative passage, and thus, both individuals decide to drop the conversation. What is interesting at this point is that after the debate ceases, both David and Hawkeye engage in the channeling of their belief systems through their fetishes/factishes, even though they are not explicitly aware of the implication of this practice: David places a pitch pipe on his lips and begins to belt out biblical verses in song (interpreting divinity in a material format), and Hawkeye adjusts the flint of his rifle and reloads it with ammo (preparing the instrument so it can help him experience another successful event).

I can’t help but wonder what role do factishes and fetishes play in the development of belief systems in the remainder of The Last of the Mohicans. Objects that certainly come into mind are the clothes that the characters don (compare, for instance, the attire worn by Hawkeye in comparison to the war paint worn by Chingachgook). I also am beginning to wonder whether more discreet “objects,” such as skin or hair color, go on to instill beliefs in a similar fashion to Hawkeye’s rifle or David’s knowledge of sacred texts. After all, hair and skin color can ostensibly be approached as a creation (via the mixing of two distinct human genetic codes), yet these creations instill attitudes and beliefs that transcend their physical properties (dark skin and light skin are fabricated though the same processes, yet the act of creation is forgotten, and perhaps overshadowed, by moral particularities correlated with skin pigmentation). Perhaps this is taking the implications of the fetish and the factish a step too far, but the possibilities are indeed seductive.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization

How Control Exists After Decentralization

Alexander R. Galloway’s Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization is by far one of the most exciting and challenging readings that I have encountered in a long time. In essence, it is a book on issues within the realm of computer science targeted towards individuals who have little or no experience within the field. By focusing his attention on the “institutional ecology” of modern computing, Galloway strives to offer a compelling and insightful look at the aspects of form, structure, and materiality within contemporary technology via the discussion of protocols, which in essence are logical rules (or arguably, formats or templates) of control that govern the exchange of data or information across a network. In due course, Galloway exposes how protocols and the advent of decentralized or distributional networks has shifted how notions such as power and control manifest in society (alluding to Foulcaldian and Deleuzian frameworks), and how their existence creates a paradoxical tension between institutionalization/fixation and freedom/deterritorialization.

Although many of the concepts, ideas, and terminology discussed in this book may seem daunting and baffling to people who don’t have much experience with computer programming, Galloway illustrates complicated concepts using various heuristic aids and metaphors (his depiction of interstate highways and airports to explain how decentralized networks function was particularly illuminating). I also found his application of Marxist, Deleuzian, and Foucauldian theories to be compelling, and it really surprised that this application helped me to better understand concepts that have been fuzzy and inaccessible to me in the past. His discussion of Foucault’s notion of biopower was particularly accessible when applied to protocols, and how they have helped transition control from a centralized presence ruled by physical and violent tendencies into a dispersed and abstract manifestation ruled by information, statistics, and quantitative data.

Given the rapidly changing nature of computer science and technology in general, it should come to no surprise that some of Galloway’s arguments and illustrative examples might seem dated and incorrect (after all, the book was published eight years ago). For instance, at one point Galloway posits that the corporate battles over video formats are moot with the presence of DVD, a format adopted according to a consensus among leaders in the film industry. Nonetheless, shortly after the publication of this book we witnessed the battle between the BluRay video format (led primarily by Sony and their integration of this technology into the Playstation 3) and the now defunct HD DVD format. Not only does this demonstrate the circularity existent within the adoption of modern technology, but it also goes to challenge some of Galloway’s assumptions of how technical standards are determined in contemporary society. Nevertheless, Galloway’s text is definitely illuminating in terms of depicting the idiosyncrasies of protocols and their formal material and social qualities, which in turn will pave the way towards better criticism of technologies, ideas, and networks that are governed by protocological standards.

What immediately came to my mind was whether or not there are non-computational phenomena or manifestations that follow protocological guidelines. For instance, in my past studies in linguistics, language was usually approached as a centralized phenomenon regulated by core apparatuses (universal grammar, broca’s area, etc.). But, how do we explain language production in the case of children who undergo hemispherectomies, and still possess the ability to speak and decode language even when entire parts of the brain are removed? Is it possible that language acquisition, similar to the internet, is also based on decentralized protocological networks? Are there areas within literature and the arts that are also guided by structures and formats similar to protocols? The possibilities are indeed tantalizing.

Check out his book by accessing the following link: http://www.amazon.com/Protocol-Control-Exists-Decentralization-Leonardo/dp/0262572338/