Only got ten minutes to save the world...

Between the new baby and the Ph.D., this grad student only has ten minutes a day to philosophize culture. Bear with me as I tell you how to think...

all within a ten-minute writing limit.



We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service (Opportunities) to Atheists

I finally found a way to turn my theory into activism. I emailed government officials and made phone calls and finally found a volunteering outlet perfect for my passion and expertise: Wellspring Living, a facility that offers a safe haven to women and girls who have been victims of sexual exploitation. There's only one problem: I'm not a Christian and so I'm not welcome.

I had a plan. Although I identify primarily as a literary/cultural theorist, I do possess a passion for creative writing (and a Master's degree in the subject, though the value of that is negligible). I concocted this idea where I would run creative writing workshops for the women of Wellspring. I could help them find their voices again, or maybe for the first time. I could perhaps contribute just a bit to the reconstruction of real women, not just the deconstruction of  "Woman". I could convert all this talk into action.   

I guess the fact that the second question on the application was "How has Jesus Christ affected your life?" should have tipped me off that perhaps my application would land in the "undesirables" pile.

Forget the Master's degree. Hell, I forget it myself, a lot of the time. But what about my passion, my expertise, my experience teaching, my intricate Dangerous Minds--esque fantasy of touching lives that are in peril?

Although Wellspring's website does not boldly advertise itself as such, it is a Christian organization. Okay. They have a right to that affiliation.

And although I was a bit shocked at just how Christian the second "Jesus Christ" application question made this organization seem, I remained diplomatic. I replied something along the lines of, "Although I personally have no religious affiliation, I understand that Wellspring is a Christian organization, and I respect and honor this aspect of Wellspring."

Before turning in the application, I spoke on the phone to the head of operations. She was excited about the prospect of my Creative Writing Workshop plan. She pointed out how "healing" it could be for the women. She even intimated that perhaps it could become a regular gig. Michelle Pheiffer, get your leather coat, 'cause you're getting a casting call. 

Yet a week later, I get an email from the same woman informing me that Wellspring has certain "expectations" of its volunteers. They thank me for my honesty, but tell me that because of my lack of Jesus-worship, I am not allowed to work in the house with the women. I can, however, work in their store, raising funds for the organization.

What this not-so-subtly implies is: "We don't want your heathen influence upon our women, but we do welcome you to make us some money."

Fuck that.

Wellspring clearly has a right to be a Christian organization. And I suppose they have a right to reject me.

But picture this: my hypothetical secular organization rejects your service because you're a Christian.

Now we've got a problem, don't we. A legal issue.

No atheists allowed at this lunch counter today, ma'am. We reserve the right to refuse service opportunities to anyone, especially the godless.

<minute ten.>

The Reluctant Orientalist

I'm "white." So if you're "black," can I write about you?

Ever read Memoirs of a Geisha? It's a novel, not really a memoir, written by a middle-aged white American man, through the persona of an elderly Japanese woman. I'm not a postcolonialist by trade, but my dear friend is, so while reading the novel in preparation for my final Ph.D. comp exam, I sent her a note asking, "Is  Memoirs of a Geisha Orientalist?"

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term (and I imagine most anyone outside of my grad student crew must be unfamiliar with this term): Orientalism, in it's original meaning as formulated by Edward Said, refers to the Western representation of Eastern cultures and lives through an inherently prejudiced and eternally Western-paradigm-locked lens. Like I said, however, I'm no postcolonialist (rough definition: someone who often studies this Orientalism stuff), so I bend the term a little. When I wonder, "Is this text Orientalist?," what I'm basically wondering is: does the author of this text offer up a "foreign" culture--"foreign" in terms of race, class, gender; not merely geography--for the edification and/or entertainment of the author's own cultural compatriots, all without having any real understanding or appreciation of the "foreign" culture he or she presents? This lack of true cultural understanding, of course, results in a bent representation of the "foreigner" in ways that are invariably caricaturing and demeaning.  

Full disclosure: I'm a middle-class American woman of some vague European ancestry. So can I write about African American women, or is that gazing? 

If I write about African American women, how can I do so with a depth of understanding and respect of that culture necessary for responsible representation?

No, no, wait--isn't it perhaps Orientalist to gloss "African American women" into a singular culture? I mean, come on, Lil' Kim and Toni Morrison don't have a whole lot in common. At least they probably don't read the same books.

And if they don't read the same books, then is that detail enough to make them culturally separate?

That is to ask: Can Toni Morrison write about Lil' Kim, or is that gazing?

To put it simply: Where do we draw the lines of cultural demarcation? Forget the question about whether its okay to theoretically deconstruct other cultures that are not our own. First of all, we've got to determine where to define our own culture, and this is where the confusion sets in.

I do not want to enact intellectual colonialism. Fair enough. I do not want to deconstruct and offer up for your edification my astute analysis of someone else's world, a world I can never know.
Let's play it safe.

Let's say I only write about my own world. Let's say, then, I only write about "white" middle-class women living in the United States. I'm I better just write about married "white" middle-class women living in the United States. I'm also an atheist. So I better just write about atheistic married "white" middle-class women living in the United States. Holy crap, where does this end?

If I refuse to write about Black women because I'm not Black, I'm also making a dangerous assumption: that all Black women share something in common. Doesn't that glossing of individuals into one common life based on complexion and genitalia enact some other equally sinister racism and sexism?
As much as I love to write about myself, I don't think I'm going to sell many academic publications centered solely on the exploits of Lindsay B.

Unless, of course, you're buying.

<minute ten.>

Feeling Pretty and Other Feminist Shortcomings

Let me tell you about one of the most beautiful encounters of my life: once, in a bar, a lovely stranger followed me with his eyes and my eyes followed back; we passed in a hallway and meaningfully meaninglessly touched; finally, as he headed toward the door on his way out, he approached me, and in front of all of my friends as well as my current boyfriend, placed in my hand a folded love note.

I won't quote the note exactly. Some things are too sacred to spill across this cyber ether. But in summary the note read, "You enchant me." That is all: no phone number, no overt come-on, no plan to meet later. A compliment upon my beauty, for what else of me had he seen? A compliment upon my face, my body, my physical me: that is all.

I remembered the note tonight when I considered what elements I need to pack into my "grab in a fire" safe. 

Why do I shelve this moment within my vault of beautiful moments? Why do I shelve it alongside the time when, while weeping in my car at a traffic light, a man in a Jeep pulled up beside me, caught my attention, and asked me what was wrong? Why do I shelve this should-be superficiality alongside the time another human being recognized my tears?

Philosophically, I rail against this kind of behavior--this swooning at your own prettiness, this attempt to become something a man (specifically, a man) will find worthwhile of his gaze; this pride at receiving the gaze. What, I beg you, is romantic about that god-damned enemy, the gaze? It owns us, keeps us wearing eyeliner and typing notes for a male colleague that is stupider and better paid than we.

What does it mean when someone like me, so educated in feminist theory, so steeped with resentment and egoistic certainty that my own genius can unwind the threads of "all those fairy tales that drugged us" until I don't feel drugged anymore, what does it mean when even the acutely theoretically aware feminist cannot help but enjoy a love note from a stranger written only about her face, her body, her physical me?

It's a cliche, but like most cliches contains an element of reality: just because you're aware of the games governing these relationships, these momentary sparks, doesn't mean you don't want to play, doesn't mean you don't want to be set aflame.

<minute ten.>

p.s. Thanks to Bright Eyes for the "fairy tales" quote.

Racist Mascot Analogies

True or False: Sports mascots such as the Braves or the Redskins honor Native Americans by highlighting their bravery.

True or False: Okay, these mascots might be a little racist, but it's not that sinister type of racism because there's no meanness or ill-intent behind the mascots. Hey, these teams just want something catchy to represent their strength! And the teams obviously respect Native Americans--just look at how brave they portray them!

True or False: After boldly and cruelly assaulting, imperializing, killing, and at best swindling people(s), it can be good fun to manipulate their image and their imagined personal qualities for the enjoyment of a class of consumers that consists of the offspring of those ancestral imperialists. We own you, you damned romantic Indians! Let us delight in your feathers and tomahawks!

Each of the above T-or-F's share a common answer--and it ain't "true".

Tonight I stumbled upon a Facebook argument. The argument, like so many Facebook arguments, exemplified the pathetically unbalanced discussions of people thrown together in a virtual world through such trivial connections as common high school or home town. A friend of mine had made a remark about how she despises teams that dishonor First Nations peoples by cavalierly employing racist mascots. This comment incited a minor shit storm that resulted in one particular Facebooker repeatedly posting various reasons why my offended friend had no right to be offended. Among these reasons: 1) The teams don't mean any harm; and 2)Most Native Americans don't find these mascots offensive and neither do I.

I didn't join the FB conversation because I was breastfeeding my baby at the time and was thus one-hand Facebooking. And it's probably better I didn't join the conversation because if I did I'd still be involved, hours later, in a volley of stupidity versus genius (I'm the genius, FYI).

But if I did respond, I'd say:

1) Intent means nothing when it comes to racism. Most racism is not-intentional. When white women loved their darling Mammies, they thought they were doing a good thing. They weren't.

2) How the fuck do you know what most Native Americans feel? Unless you're a Native American, it doesn't matter if you don't find it offensive. And even if some Native Americans don't find the Braves offensive, the use of these mascots still contributes to the casual continuation of unintentional racism in which it's okay to own, manipulate, and caricature the image of people you have attempted to destroy. It isn't.

Remember the SATs? Remember analogies? Here's an analogy for you:

"The Braves" are to America what "The Jews" are to Germany.

How's does the Resilient Jew sound for a German sports team mascot?

That's what I thought.   

<minute ten.>

The Activist Academic and the Problem of the Circle Jerk.

If you're an academic, you've heard it from the haters: lovers, perhaps mothers, friends, in good will or in attack will ask, "So what exactly do you add to the world?" (or to "society," or "culture," or any other vague but heavy-sounding abstraction)....

Once, a boyfriend--a person with whom I was incompatible in every important way, but a boyfriend nonetheless--said to me, in an argument, "I make things. What do you make?"

 My grad student friends and I talk about how sick we are of defending our work. How we work all the time but no one believes us. How what we do is important.

But we also joke, and worry, and wonder why and how the Hell we got into this and what the Hell we're gonna do now. We've wondered it ourselves: Just what do academics do? What do they make?

And probably more importantly, Why do academics have to make something?

And probably even more importantly--will I ever be able to get a job? 

But I digress.

The stereotype exists both within and without the academy--grad students, professors, lecturers, writers, people who think and talk about theories and abstractions a lot of the time--are participating in merely a self-perpetuation: the continuation of the academy, reproduction in the form of protegees and mentees, of a relatively small group of people, complete with their own jargon, speaking through journals of little fame as they compete with and congratulate each other in a circle jerk of intellectual masturbation. But none of this reading, writing, thinking hard at night, matters, does it? None of it matters if it doesn't somehow make a difference.

If academics only talk to each other, then what's the point?

 Or: What has Foucault done for you?

I believe they do something; really I do. But I've been trying to figure out the nature of that something they're doing, of that something I hope to be doing--and the furthest I've gotten is this:

Another stereotype: academics and activists have a contentious relationship. It's complicated, but basically it's something like, academics think activists are dummies and activists think academics are ineffectual.

And while this stereotype plays out in real life sometimes, like all stereotypes must, as an academic, when I wonder, How do I make myself matter--not in esoteric language among a small group of people who are, like myself, privileged in more ways that is in any way fair, as we discuss, usually, people who are less "privileged" than ourselves as we try to change the world--how do I make myself matter in a way that will actually not only theoretically "figure out" the problems I care so much about figuring out in discourse, but out in the world with my friends and pals who, like most people, don't read much literary theory and have never clicked through JSTOR on a beautiful Saturday night? In short, how does the academic become an activist?Is this academic an activist?

Perhaps the solution resides in the cross-over the dialogue between the supposedly contentious camps. Any group of theoretical experts have activists among them. And any group of activists possesses theory and experts. They inform one another: the academics muse upon and develop theoretical plans-of-action for the activists and those that populate the situations activists attempt to improve, while the activists practice execute these plans, often with their own twists, out there in that damned mysterious "real world" among those damned mysterious "real people." A sort of trickle-down intellectualism. Sounds sinister, somehow.

<minute ten.>

Vegetarians: They Don't Eat Humans

Of the culinary cruelty inflicted upon lobsters, Anthony Bourdain once said, "Anything that you can chop into four pieces and those four pieces still move, you don't have to feel bad about eating."

One level beneath vegetarianism on the scale of food-based ideological dedication resides pescatarianism. Pescatarians, of course, eat only fish--and vegetables. I suppose pescatarians feel okay devouring salmon because, as the late-great Kurt D. Cobain once sang, "It's okay to eat fish 'cause they don't have any feelings."

Besides insects, fish are the animals least like humans, and therefore, I contend, the animals that nearly-vegetarians are willing to eat.

Because, at the heart of the matter, what's the problem with eating animals? They have faces; they have feelings. In short, they remind us of people. The choice not to eat an animal is an empathetic one. So the animal has a face; so the animal has feelings--why do these qualities, specifically, make the animal inedible? 

I am not, mind you, suggesting that I can't understand the empathy. I understand the empathy. Personally I don't eat mammals. Why? Because mammals are friends. Why? Because mammals are human-like. Have you seen the sad eyes on the cow, for Christ's sakes? 

I am, however, suggesting that the choice not to eat animals stems not simply from love for the animals; the love for the animal stems from love for the self.

What's worse to eat--an oyster or a chimp?

Why does even the most passionate carnivore cringe at chimp-eating? We eat chickens happily--but not apes. The ape reminds us too much of ourselves. The closer the creature gets to human, the more disgusting it gets to eat it.

When we value an animal's face, an animal's feelings, we privilege the qualities that we value most in ourselves. Yet a fundamental element of vegetarianism seems to be a respect for all life, equally--that is to say, the chicken's life is not worth less than mine. 

But what about the carrot? Is the carrot's life less than mine? What about the cries of the carrots on harvest day?

The carrot doesn't feel happy or embarrassed--does that render its life expendable?  

The closer the creature gets to human, the less edible it becomes. When we choose not to eat chimps, we choose not to eat humans. When vegetarians don't eat chickens, they don't eat people. This empathy, like all empathy, proves to be self-love.

<minute ten.>

The Feminist Stripper--Subversive or Delusional?

For my first post, I'll start with an issue close to my heart: feminism and the sex trade. Specifically, feminism and stripping.

Before I break the cardinal rule of writing about what I don't know about, or worse, before I venture to tell someone how to live without living it myself, let me make it vaguely clear: I'm experienced. Plus I'm a feminist theorist (in training). So that validates my viewpoint somewhat, right? No intellectual imperialism here.

For years, I've struggled with the question: can a stripper be a feminist? Of course we know that a stripper can manipulate and, frankly, dupe men into giving her money and thus, at least to some degree, financial freedom. The stripper plays the game that cannot be escaped. In a culture that values heterosexually attractive women above all women, in a culture where said women are rewarded materialistically or simply with prestige, it is natural for a woman to gravitate toward the methods that will grant her such rewards. You don't have to be a stripper to do this. If you shave your legs, if you wear make-up, if you try to look pretty, you do this. And you are not committing a crime.

You are, however, reinforcing a system in which woman is object for male consumption, rightful object of male gaze. The stripper participates in a system that is densely symbolic of female sexual subordination. She dances nude under the gaze of fully clothed men. She sells her sexuality, literally. 

Yet she makes a good sale. Capitalistically, at least, she succeeds--she has a product in high demand at which customers throw copious amounts of cash.

At best, she manipulates a capitalist system that in no other way favors her gain. At worst, she is complicit and selfish, adding to the subordination of other women for her own financial reward. Metaphorically, a drug dealer.

For years I searched for the "right" answer--is there potential for feminism here? In the last couple of days I've come to believe the answer is somewhere in between, a necessary conversation between subjectivity and objectivity, between agent and door-mat.

Yes, the stripper reinforces, she reifies, she symbolizes the exchange of women, the traffic in women. But can she dismantle this millenia-old set up? Is it her responsibility to do so? And what is the point of dismantling this system if not to give women the right to do as they please?  And while she reifies this patriarchal subordination, she manipulates the system in some degree to her own gain. Her subjectivity, her ability to manipulate this system, depends on her objectivity, the existence of this system in the first place.

<Minute ten.>


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