5.01.2008

The terms of (re)productivity

http://www.yaledailynews.com/articles/view/24722

Published: Monday, April 28, 2008
Rethinking Shvarts’ corporal interrogation

There is no doubt about it: Aliza Shvarts has had a very (re)productive year. She conceived (of) a senior art project that has sparked a national debate (albeit not on or in the terms she expected) and brought national attention to the usually uncontroversial senior art show.

Perhaps because of failures in the public introduction of her work or because of the culture into which it was introduced, the discussion surrounding it has been focused on issues of (re)productivity, not art. On a personal level, pro-choice advocates have taken a stance similar to that of their anti-choice counterparts, arguing that while she should be allowed choice in matters pertaining to her body, she has erred in her choice(s).

The administration has condemned the artist and her collaborators for their endangerment of the artist’s body and the University’s image. The arguments have been in line with the views of a culture conscious of the ambiguity surrounding cultural and scientific definitions of life and of the human, political and economic costs of AIDS: that (physically and/or politically) unprotected sex is something to be reserved for (re)productive uses. “Choice,” in this framework, is to be exercised, but only in a (politically and/or physically) calculated manner, only following strict guidelines for the (physical and/or political) use and utility of the body.

The discourse initiated by Shvarts’ project has been written off by pro-choice proponents as harmful and unproductive because it exposes the unspoken limits and hypocrisy of the language of choice in our culture. Members of the Yale community have decried the implications of the project to the University. And their assessments are correct. Shvarts’ artistic (re)production will most likely prove politically harmful to the pro-choice movement, and it will probably be economically detrimental to University fundraising. But does that mean that the work is not productive?

The underlying premise of arguments against Shvarts’ actions seems to be that unless the (re)productive value of an act is immediately evident, it should not be undertaken — that the political and physical risks of any interrogation of the body (or any other political subject) and its (political and/or physical) uses and limits can only be vindicated by a clear an socially accepted politically or physically (re)productive outcome. In short, only the (physical and political) (re)productivity of the body has been discussed — the productivity of interrogation itself is notably absent from the debate.

Despite the fact that Shvarts, like many in the early stages of their careers, has dismissed concerns about her health, the issue has been consistently raised in discussions of her work, and her physical well-being has been cited repeatedly as a reason she should not have been allowed to undertake the project. The rhetoric used to attack her has drawn from an interesting blend of personal and social responsibility. These interests converge on and in her body with sexually transmitted disease, again, in a culture at least superficially concerned with the costs of AIDS.

Her “choice” to expose her body and its uses to public scrutiny has endangered with infectious disease, it seems, the (re)productive value of her body and even, possibly, that of her community. But to argue that Shvarts should not have undertaken her project because of the risk of sexually transmitted infection rings ironic, given that the crisis caused by the most discussed and feared infection, HIV/AIDS, occurred precisely because of an unwillingness to acknowledge and thereby sanction unscripted uses of the body. Further, efforts to eradicate the virus have been hampered by a fear of political and economic “risks” in a society where drug patents are more valuable than human lives. While sights have been set on Shvarts in the localized fight against AIDS, broader action against AIDS has been devalued, much like Shvarts’ art, by political and economic processes of risk assessment.

The more logical of Shvarts’ detractors are correct in their analyses: Her product is a failure as a means to any political or economic ends. What has not been examined nearly satisfactorily, however, is its merit as an end in and of itself. I am not sure how I feel about Shvarts’ work because of the discourse that has enveloped it: I will not be able to see the work, and I will not be able to supplement or confront her interrogation with my own questions on (re)productivity. The situation into which her work was borne will ultimately prevent me from coming to any conclusion as to the productivity of her (re)production.

Instead, I am left with one question of my own: Should the legitimacy of interrogations of (re)production (be they sexual, intellectual, artistic, economic or some combination thereof) be dictated by their possible politico-economic productivity?

3.13.2008

The Associated Press: Sheriff: Woman Sat on Toilet for 2 Years

The Associated Press: Sheriff: Woman Sat on Toilet for 2 Years

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Authorities are considering charges in the bizarre case of a woman who sat on her boyfriend's toilet for two years — so long that her body was stuck to the seat by the time the boyfriend finally called police.

Ness County Sheriff Bryan Whipple said it appeared the 35-year-old Ness City woman's skin had grown around the seat. She initially refused emergency medical services but was finally convinced by responders and her boyfriend that she needed to be checked out at a hospital.

"We pried the toilet seat off with a pry bar and the seat went with her to the hospital," Whipple said. "The hospital removed it."

There's something comforting about the thought of spending two years in the safety of the toilet.

3.11.2008

There's something unnerving about being lonely in a familiar place. I have elected to remain in New Haven for my final (undergraduate) spring break in order to complete my senior thesis. I am among a fairly small minority of undergraduates who have chosen to forgo the pull of warmer or more interesting locales and the push of closed dining halls and a deserted campus. Right now I sit in a coffee shop with which I am very familiar, surrounded by... strangers. A friend and I discussed a few weeks ago how nice it will be next year to be able to explore the streets of our new cities in relative anonymity. I hadn't expected a pre-graduation trial run.

One of things I appreciated about study abroad was the anonymity, but, more so, the expected and welcome strangeness. I traveled to Paris with a full understanding that I would be a stranger, not in the sense put forward by Camus (I killed no one, and, had I, I would have felt immediate remorse). Rather, I took comfort in the fact that I was not French, I would not (and should not) be taken as French and I wasn't.

There's a reason Du Bois' notion of double consciousness remains in wide circulation 100+ years after The Souls of Black Folk was published. Because it's still relevant. There are few things more frustrating and unsettling than being told one does not belong when one feels one does or should, whether explicitly or implicitly. As a queer person of color from a Christian background, I'm quite familiar with both.

Paris, then, was a welcome respite from unexpected and off-putting rejections and exasperating questions of identity and belonging. My belonging was never questioned by myself or others: I simply didn't belong. I was a visitor. I would soon leave.

In L'Intrus (The Intruder), French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy reflects upon his recent heart transplant. His new heart is, in many ways, an intruder, and one his body is likely to reject. I was, in that sense, the new heart of Paris. My acceptance in the city was contingent: it was understood that my term would end, my visa would expire and I would leave as quietly as I arrived. Had I tried to stay, more drastic action might have been undertaken.

This contingency is not, however, restricted to foreign places. As I've noticed here today, my comfort in any body depends upon its makeup and their reaction to my presence. Today, I might be an intruder, in two weeks, probably not. In six months...?

I've begun to worry about graduation, not because of any desire to remain in New Haven (although I just might), but because, even if I stay, the body of which I've become part will be leaving. My four years here has been the first time in my life I've been able to carve out a niche in which I've felt somewhat comfortable, and that will soon be disrupted.

But perhaps the strangeness of next year will be as welcome/ing as that of Paris. And I'll continue to adjust to being a perpetual outsider.

2.19.2008

Queer and white and "Fuck!"

In the short years since the Western world began to recognize the humanity and basic human rights of its queerer citizens, the homophobia of the "developing" world has become a focal point, reifying notions of difference constantly challenged in an increasingly linked world. One area particularly scrutinized is the Caribbean. While these assessments are flawed in their ahistorical analysis of contemporary trends (e.g. What is the role of religious traditions imposed as a means of social control?), there is a level of homophobia that permeates many areas of the Caribbean that is not radically unlike rampant homophobia of more conservative cultures of the United States and which manifests in physical violence that goes unpunished far more often than it does here in the US.

Surprising then, that my visual introduction to gay culture (unless you count pornography) would be through public television in Antigua, an island in the Lesser Antilles, "home" to most of my family. Antigua has two public television channels which carry public broadcasts as well as the news and other cultural programming. In off hours, they transmit programming from American channels, often Showtime, HBO and Cinemax.

Programming was predetermined and advertised at fairly regular intervals on both channels, so I was nothing less than shocked one night to find myself before the image of two men fucking passionately--something I would not have imagined finding on cable television in the states, much less on public television in Antigua. Over the course of the next weeks I was in Antigua, the show, Queer as Folk, appeared regularly on channel two.

Whether or not the broadcast was planned, an oversight or a deliberate and politically minded act carried out by an activist employee, I have no idea. I do know that, for the first time, I had access to images of queer lifestyles that were not pornographic or negative. Queer as Folk is, of course, no queer utopia: the show made no effort, in its five years on television, to challenge dominant notions of exclusively white queerness or gendered notions of family, to mention a few oversights.

The fact that I accessed these images in a space positioned very firmly in the western imagination as universally homophobic is interesting. As Staceyann Chin remarked during her performance here at Yale a few days ago, she left the Caribbean to escape homophobia, got to the US, and "Fuck!" there was homophobia and more blatant racism.

Perhaps I'm taking a singular incident too far in my analysis of complex relationships between the Caribbean (and the rest of the "developing" world) and the US, but it has been--if nothing else--an interesting launching point in my thoughts about one specific and extremely pertinent aspect of these relationships: capitalism.

The Caribbean, as we know it today, knew it a hundred years ago, will know it until significant changes take place, exists only because of capitalism. Bodies were moved, landscapes were altered, markets were built solely to produce profit and capital. Now we've moved from sugar to tourism, but the principal remains the same.

Homophobia in the Caribbean is not a "natural" phenomenon. It's completely and undeniably tied to Christianity, which was imported into the region and spread among slave and, later, free populations once it had been identified as an effective means of deploying social controls--ensuring a relatively passive source of labor.

Capitalism has also been instrumental in the erasure of people of color from popular imaginations of queer culture. Queer as Folk is not alone in its whitewashing of a diverse queer constituency.

I can't help but draw links between the fact that brown people have come to represent the (in)human face of homophobia and violence against a (seemingly white) queer population. The one I saw I saw on Antiguan TV.


Attacks Show Easygoing Jamaica Is Dire Place for Gays
Published: February 24, 2008
Being gay in Jamaica is not easy. For years, human rights groups have denounced the harassment, beating and even killing of gays in the country, to little avail.
Read

1.03.2008

I’ve recently become addicted to Weeds—the television show, not the wonderful herbal remedy (which is not addictive). While television shows, although sometimes amusing, are rarely thought-provoking, the sudden obsession with certain shows I go through every time I return home is. Why do I get so attached to fictional characters when I’m in this room? Why do I become paralyzed (I haven’t made it through a single of the nine books I brought home with me) by their witty one-liners and gratuitous, not even that freaky sex?

When I come home, I’m always struck by how quiet it is. I suppose that is the purpose of suburbia (numbing body, mind and soul), but striking, nonetheless. It’s quite rare for me to encounter anyone in the immediate vicinity of my house, outside of their vehicle. In fact, I don’t encounter anyone except in my house and whatever destination I choose to go to. There is no public transportation where I live—you have to drive to the nearest commuter bus line. Communities, then, are extremely calculated—one associates with whomever one chooses to associate—or nonexistent.

Digital entertainment is a substitute for the kind of community (or intense hatred) that proximity creates in urban settings. Watching Nancy deal with drug dealers stashing heroin in her garage is not, for me, unlike hearing stories of my friends’ weekend escapades, or watching Nancy struggle with issues of race, class and love in her friendship with Conrad unlike hearing my friends deliberate the merits of pursuing their latest hookups. Weeds has become my community, a stand-in for friends newly immersed in old communities while I debate driving the half hour to the nearest shopping mall I can stand to stare at clothes I cannot afford. Weeds, unlike weed, helps me feel alive.

But is that which the screen—big or small—is to suburbia that unlike what love is, universally? In between episodes of Weeds, I’ve found myself battling with raging hormones and a general detachment from the (many many) objects of my affection(ate lust). I’ve begun to notice the extent to which I confound the two desires that seem to drive a large portion of my actions: sexual desire and the desire to feel wanted or cared about. I’ve always noted an increase in both desires when I return home, but it now seems that what was lacking was the latter, rather than the former (which can generally be taken care of single-handedly).

Falling in love—at least for me—is generally followed by a spirited campaign to win someone’s emotions. Falling in love, then, is more about convincing to express desire than anything else. Falling in love is replacing the television with a human being (the process seems backwards, but the sentiment is the same). Love is wanting to feel that someone cares about you, will look out for your best interest and hopefully have sex with you a few times a week, to boot.

Love is a process of exclusion once necessary (since life was short and procreation was almost inevitable if you were actually having sex). Families, communities are often abandoned for love, as couples create new communities, formerly with numerous little citizens, but now, more often than not, confined to two until much later. The contemporary version of this model of love allows for a certain level of individuality, a rejection of family and community that would otherwise necessitate other ways of feeling connected… like television.

Despite evidence to the contrary, we treat love—as we know it—as something timeless, something that has always existed. But is love really anything more than a product of the individuality so fundamental to the (modern western) human condition?

I love Weeds.

1.01.2008

It upsets my mother when I leave dishes in the sink--one of many illogical triggers of our many illogical spats.

Dishwashing, as simple an act as it is, a simple fact of life, strikes me as one of the ways that different people experience life. I remember reading a book in grade school about a Native American family. The narrator, if my memory serves me correctly, becomes all the more conscious of his difference when his family's practice of washing dishes just before using them comes under the scrutiny of his Euro-American peers. It's a poignant moment of the illogical nature of intolerance--after all, washing dishes just before use is a more sanitary practice. Dishwashing hardly seems like a site of cultural difference, but in my experience it is indicative of the realities of different people.

As a middle-class first gen-er, I've had the fortune of experiencing some degree of immersion, and in a "developing" country, to boot. I was always puzzled when chastised for using too much water while washing the dishes. It never occurred to me that water was not as plentiful there as it was at home. Even if it did, we were on an island, surrounded by water. I would not have understood that desalination is an extremely expensive procedure, and one that does not take place in countries lead by corrupt leaders hand-picked by their former colonial rulers. Especially when those leaders pocket the "charity" of their former exploiters, masters. I would not have realized that droughts are commonplace in former sugar colonies--the deforestation undertaken by Europeans to maximize the profit-producing land available ensures this.

It would be some time before I realized that many people--nowadays, mostly brown--depend on dishwashing for survival. That many live in the United States--my home--on temporary visas or without papers, sending remittances home to their families because, while they can support their families from the kitchens of our restaurants, the economic remnants of colonialism (in effect, continued colonialism) guarantee that serving Americans is better compensated than professional labor at home.

There's an installation at the Tate Modern in London right now--a huge crack in the ground that is meant to symbolize the growing divide between Britain and its former colonies. Appropriately enough, it has become the subject of much debate, not because of the ideas it conveys, but because a number of Brits have failed to notice it and been injured when they've fallen in. It's amazing how well dishwashing encompasses this divide and the deliberate ignorance that surrounds it (deliberate because the silence that surrounds the realities of others has been systematically engineered).