Bill Maher’s Infantile Citizenship

I want to discuss one of my not so favorite shows, Real Time with Bill Maher, and in particular an episode that aired on June 8th.

I think I “get” the appeal. I mean, I hate-watch the show (…clearly). His wry humor is meant to indicate his own (pseudo) distance from the clash of “phony” politics. His monologues are clever and critical, but for their own ends to be clever and critical. His panelists are meant to “represent” threads from the large cloth of American political identities. And the topics for the panelists are current.

But as I’m watching the panel, I feel as though I’m watching a wall strenuously rearranging itself brick by brick all while insisting itself to be a window into a culture it seems pathetically out of touch with. It’s within this confused space that Maher can then attend to his treatment of audiences as infantile citizens, to borrow a phrase from Lauren Berlant’s work The Queen of American goes to Washington. It’s a strategy of sentimentalism that preys on engineering a critical feeling of “American” without ever being critical of feeling.

Part of this idea that Maher invites infantile citizenship is drawn from the all-too-often fact that public and private discussions of American culture, politics, and/or national identity become ahistorical. These discussions could be their own narrative genre, I think. It engages in an active form of national forgetting. It’s a cultural amnesia that isn’t accountable to itself. It’s not a new phenomenon or critique (Cornell West has made similar remarks, I think even on the show itself). It’s just that this June 8th episode really brought to the fore how easy it is for cultural amnesia to set in when history is luminous backdrop of the discussion. Maher had interviewed Michael Eric Dyson about his book on the  unfinished business of race in America. Maher did his usual “listen, agree, repeat what was said in a new format, repeat” kind of interview. So we have about 15 minutes of a Black scholar discussing one untold history of Black radicalism. But what I find breathtaking is that Maher can move from having this esteemed guest discussing racial antagonisms in American history and politics onto a panel discussion (complete with an uneasy feeling of tokenism) that seems to completely sideline those antagonisms.

So I started asking myself a few questions more commonly found in queer, feminist, and critical race theories. For example, why is it that the subaltern body (the body of the Other) is the ideal proving ground for when “truly national” feeling gets experienced? For example, when Maher champions the national feelings associated with the constitutional liberty to “free speech and expression,” it’s the “Muslim woman” whose body is thrown into rhetorical relief. More specifically, it’s the Muslim woman who doesn’t don the “oppressive” veil as examples of true American freedom. Freedoms set of affects are so obvious that the Muslim woman doesn’t even need to speak of her own experiences. If she did, she would apparently express how lucky she feels to be thriving in a “free” country and not a theocratic, “Islamic” one. And there it is:  the image of her a covered woman juxtaposed against the uncovered one that is paraded, respectively, as a sigil of oppression on the one hand and the American promise of a freer good life on the other.

So audience members are supposed to understand “Muslim women” as a group that is static and lacks any dimension? This kind of suggestion asks viewers/listeners to allow a homogeneity of experiences that this category of women are facing in America. But what are the actual experiences of  economic, racist, or sexist scenes in their everyday lives? It sutures a Muslim woman’s identity with an American (read white and male) one. An identity that, if you pay close attention, has somehow always been here for them.  “But free speech and expression…” is a kind of shorthand for not having to deal with the complexities of racialized, gendered, and sexualized lifeworlds.

Why is it that capitalism is never discussed as part of the root cause of economic, political, and social disaffection? The (Muslim) woman’s body isn’t the only body that gets drawn up in sentimental hyperbole during the episode. Chicanx and/or immigrant bodies are also used as a means of articulating another facet of American identity: hard work under the benign aegis of the free-market. It suggests more than simply a slapdash avowal of immigration or immigrant communities generally. It marks those communities as workers necessary for the reproduction of our capitalist system without giving them a voice in the manner of wages, style of work, or real opportunities for making a life. Such bodily parades also disrupt, and in fact invite forgetting about, the historical narrative of xenophobia and anti-Mexican sentiment that still haunts the southwest. Speaking on behalf of subaltern communities in liberatory vernacular doesn’t liberate them. It makes a double abstraction out of them: as both bearers of rights and silent agents for whom others have the right to speak.

Why can history be center-stage when its performance is not? The concept that freedom of speech and expression can be used as a shield against and eraser of historical context. It shields Maher from taking responsibility for idiotic and problematic statements about race, gender, class, or religious creed. It also erases the lived value and thick histories of these identity categories. It disdains the relations between history and present feeling. Thus, this concept of expression makes expressing complaints about racist remarks seem infantile, overly emotional and thus irrational. It suggests that real hurt doesn’t look like that. That real or true feelings means bearing the brunt of a joke with a sense of dignity, not defeat. That true feelings are not about disengaging from the circuits of (what Maher presumably already thinks actually exists as) a public sphere. But of engaging it, fighting back, talking it out. Because, like liberalism’s pedagogy suggests, it’s about individual transformations in present time, free from the contradictions and complications of history. At every turn, his conception of “true feelings” are not really not historical ones, but ones that make peace with history by falling in love with fantasy.

This is the ethos of Maher’s show. It exploits the ahistorical fantasies of freedom for its effects at cohering together the fantasy of “real” America. It treats audiences as infantile citizens by using the iconicity of otherwise important aspects of American constitutional life to reroute audience’s memories and attention away from everyday suffering. It hypes up revitalizing institutions of a genuinely American type (namely, the vote) and suggests that this kind of knowledge is individually transformative. In this way Maher cannot claim an ideological distance from conservatism. It is avowedly a conservative one.

This ethos, not peculiar to Maher, owns up to history only when it is convenient to own up to it. It hyperbolizes subaltern life when it illustrates what is best about American life, even when those subaltern lives are left somewhere in the space on the side of road. This ethos panders to everyday idealities of American life, and even to its ordinariness, in spite of itself. It infantilizes citizenship, creating an ideal that audience members might inhabit–one that allows forgetting the historical conditions that brought the everyday zones of livability and unlivability to them.  In that sense, Maher is a bad sentimentalist (if there ever is a “good” one). He’s bad because he thrives on generating affects of commonality under the rubric of the American “nation” that requires forgetting, willfully, that such a concept of nationhood perpetuates its own foundation in white normativity, white histories, and white institutions. He relies on audiences forgetting their personal histories within this kind of impersonal zone by appealing to “the political” in us all. And to add insult to the injury he commits to intellectual honesty, he pawns these affects as honest, truthful, and, well real in “real time.” He is a sham, much like his regularly remarked arch-nemesis-of-the-people, Donald Trump.

There are many more things I could say. But I gotta get back to my dissertation I’ll be defending in a couple of months. And sorry for not providing links. I was lazy.

 

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Feminism and Dying: Reading Sedgwick Part One

Part One: Finding A Voice

My writing is difficult.

“B,” I’ve heard people say. “If only you wrote what you just said, exactly how you said it, instead of the way it was written–I would have understood you.” Really? I meant the same fucking thing in the same fucking grammatical ways, just with different symbols called words! I wanted intensity to reflect the lives I was writing about. Why do I have to stop mid-sentence to explain “sensorium,” “affective attachment,” or a “culture of epistemic myopia.” I don’t want to care more about writing, just the subject. What an abyss.

So I’ll do a little story-telling and give a little structure to what all this blog project (as I’m calling it) is about.

I’m going to share some details about my life that has impacted the multiple trajectories I have taken in my life. I’m going to break this project up over several parts, this first being the inaugural part (who knows how many after). It’s about the parallelism between the book I’m currently reading, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love, and the linkages between her prose and analysis and my own experiences growing up with a mother with cancer.

Throughout this multi-part project I’ll be emphasizing themes I’m sure I can’t predict now. But I can think of one for this particular entry, what could be called the phenomenology of shame and what prevents me (or us) from writing clearly about emotional living (or affective experiences). Perhaps this project is a way to think about (past and present) affective experiences in reparative ways. 

When I think about it, this seems to be the most ridiculous thing? I can’t even write about what I find to be the most constitutive and transformative series of experiences in my life: Barbara, my mother, and her slow death of breast cancer. Every time I do write about the experiences, I feel like I’m pandering, like I want pity or something. Even to this day when I mention that my mom passed away more than 12 years ago, I cringe. Everyone has their mom. “I’m so sorry.” For what?

So don’t feel sorry. This isn’t sentimental. Just read. Just read without the questions of “what does the author intend to do here.” Don’t let the confusion of incomplete sentences and tense issues stop you. Just. Read.

I.

I grew up around cancer. My aunts both lived with and died from it. My mother lived with it for most of my life until she, too, died from it.

Suddenly, I’m a 16 year old queer all over again, learning for yet another time that she’s been re-diagnosed.

Standing in the kitchen of our New Mexico home on Kirtland Air Force Base (my mom would always call it “Kirkland” for some reason), fixing a pot of ramen noodles. “Sweetie, we have some news…”

And then breaking down while being told everything will be alright.

And the anger at the complete wantonness of it all: the privative life of a kid whose parent is dying and no one else can see it so that they might feel it. The smell of the oncology ward and the pit that grows like a plague seeing all those women on pull-out chairs attached to IVs, their heads wrapped in cloth for reasons you can only reason are for warmth, not aesthetic value.

Or the shame of feeling like I have to “deal” with another one of her mastectomies, her complete hysterectomy, her bed-riddenness, her inability to get up before noon each day, her loss of appetite, her sudden outburst of crying, of telling her to “stop” and then finding myself retching at my own disgust. And the ensuing emotional distancing because the shame of not being able to look at her without feeling pity, or that she was pathetic and weak, or that anyone would wish to be someplace else–it all became too strong. And I vomit.

And then the substance abuse that people call “self-medication”–only it was neither about myself nor particularly medicating. It was her. Just like the cutting, burning, whipping, and scratching that “self-injury” diagnoses relish in calling “unhealthy coping mechanisms.”

Or the reprimand from my Oma (father’s mother) that “you’re going to regret” not spending enough time with her. And of yelling at my Oma, an old German immigrant, that she had no “fucking clue” what she was talking about. And the awkward lunch she then took me to.

Or the college days that were really not a reprieve. It was a first semester of hell that started with a move-in that required my mother to sleep through a majority of it. And the biochemical bullshit of taking two different antidepressants and something else (I can’t remember) to help me sleep and something else (I can’t remember) to give me energy. Existing in a zone of in-between-ness.

Or of the constant phone calls to make sure everything was alright. And it always was. And then the Stevie Nicks concert where Barbara wore her shawl and twirled like she was the bewitching star on stage and “so there you go again, you say, you want your freedom.” You’re right Stevie. The shame I felt because was when I realized I didn’t want my freedom from Barbara but from her sickness and the distance it put between us.

And of finally being put at ease. She was OK. Even though she was never quite available to talk on the phone anymore. Always asleep. But that she wanted me to teach her about the Supreme Court because I was asked to lead a panel discussion in which I defended a more progressive affirmative action program at NMSU and knew my shit about case law and argued against a group of “dumbass white folks.”

Or that time where, after letting my hair down, relaxing, I came home from a drunken night with a friend, both naked in bed, feeling like I was living my best life, finally. And the phone call in the morning from my father, “You need to get here. Your mom. She has a week.” And the fire, fury, futile rage, anger, betrayal, blasphemy of words that couldn’t meld a single potent expression of the pitiful state. Just feeling. A raw nerve. I was in the fetal position, hungover, weeping on the floor of my college apartment.

And then suddenly being there in the hospital room, seeing her take her last breath. And hating my brother and my father for making me watch. And hating being there in that room.

Because there is nothing beautiful about watching someone die.

II.

It doesn’t take a professor or a therapist to feel that “shame is a painful thing to write about. It gets into your body. It gets into you.” That’s what Elspeth Probyn intones in “Writing Shame.” It’s about exposure and vulnerability that drives the urge to turn away from the computer screen, close your laptop, and walk away. Because, exactly like you’ve been taught your entire life, you don’t want to be sentimental in your feelings or writing. You don’t want the weight, a pathos so overbearing as to be writing mere melodrama. But “it’s the challenge of making the writing equal to the subject being written about. The gulf between the two may bring on the feeling of being a sham or…a deeper shame.” Elspeth gets it. “Shame forces us to reflect continually on the implications of our writing.” She gets it.

Then there’s Sedgwick’s canonical account, that shame “is the affect that mantles the threshold between introversion and extroversion, between absorption and theatricality, between performativity and–performativity.” Shame has the affective force of interrupting all of us midway through a sentence, or an utterance, or wordless thought. It’s as constitutive as it is interruptive (maybe both are the same?). And thus in writing, there’s an ambivalent practice that occurs. A distancing that the author creates from the subject because, well–you don’t want to get too “in the weeds” and forget your own “voice.” Or the feeling that being too dispassionate makes you sound like an asshole, like a typical social scientist whose voice is overly formal–banalizing the singularity and beauty of a life. Where does the middle ground emerge? Is it somewhere between that introvertedness of a writer who knows the subject but can’t grasp the words, filled to the brim with affect and the extrovertedness of the scholar who has the words but lacks the affective content to match the subject?

I found a semblance of an answer (so far) in A Dialogue on Love, Sedgwick’s account of her experiences with therapy after being diagnosed with cancer. My copy of the book, the 1999 edition from Beacon Press, has no table of contents. It’s set up very much like a diary, starting in 1992. And while I was reading I couldn’t help but think of where I was in 1992, with my mother who, although in remission, still had to deal with the knowledge that her cancer can return at anytime. She had lost a sister already.

You see, the first two chapters of Sedgwick’s text deals with the dialogue she and her first (cis) male therapist, Shannon, have. It’s a reflection of those exchanges: of her intellectualism and its effects on her desire, her relationships, and her need to be in therapy.

The reading is a dreamscape. A set of memories. As memory then…

In 1992, I was in Colorado. Aurora, Colorado to be exact.

Nine years old. I remember even then feeling so energetic about nearly everything except cub scouts. I knew what “cancer” was. I knew it was deadly. At night I would say the same prayer exactly 15 times before I could sleep, “God keep my mother alive.” It was exactly 15 or the prayer was worthless. Everything had to be perfect for me. (I’ve since been diagnosed with OCD.) However, this is what Lauren Berlant has called “affective attachments”: things that bring about a sense of a secure, durable world. I excelled as a student. I didn’t have academic problems. I loved to read about facts–just facts. Encyclopedic facts, actually. My mom had bought a partial set.

Not surprisingly, I was an introverted kid. I liked playing with Adam, my handsome best friend and neighbor. But what I loved most was being at home with my mom. Watching “Unsolved Mysteries” with her until bedtime. My mother was even the den mother of our local cub scout chapter. She had energy then but was still very thin.

I remember she had a prosthetic breast from her first bout with cancer. She showed it to me in order to explain it because, well, I didn’t know why she even needed it. “You are who you are,” I told her. I couldn’t (and didn’t) tell anyone else that she had cancer, that I was terrified she was going to die from it, that it could be my fault. There was an internal intensity that never quite made it to the surface of my body as a child. And every night I would lie there in bed, petrified that if I didn’t pray just right, get into bed just right, I would jeopardize my mom’s life. I would even sneak into her room at night and ever so carefully hover over her face to make sure she was breathing. One night she woke up and caught me and gasped in terror. I ran with such motivation back to my room, hid under my covers, expecting punishment.

Nothing happened. She just asked what I was doing in her bedroom. I told her that I was making sure she was still alive.

Perhaps these scenes in 1992, alongside an entire lifetime of experiences contemplating her death and her bodily appearances as a result of chemo or radiation therapies, is why I tend to question mine or anyone else’s privilege, their “OK-ness of being,” as Sedgwick puts it in her book. Because, like Sedgwick, I was (and am) stuck an impasse in this. How many other (at least white) kids in that neighborhood, or that school, could actually say they felt and knew what death was? That they lived with it every day and that it consumed them to the degree that their ordinary–those rhythms and grooves of expectation and relief in everyday life–was broken into vignettes of prayer, anxiety, play, and emotional fatigue from making sure they weren’t the ones responsible for their mother’s death? What happened to that kid who loved their mother so much that they grew up that, for a time, they felt ashamed of her illness? Where is the kid (in the adult now) that thrived on love and security?

End of Part One.

(The second will be to stage a textual event on the shoulders of the first, if only to broker some conversation between feminism and hetero-masculinity. Or what the witnessing of slow death does to a person’s sense of belonging in the world [i.e., my father]).

Commodifying Epistemic Practices: Race, Gender, and Dialogue

Well, just constructed through a serious of epistemic practices at least.
Well, just constructed through a series of epistemic practices at least.

I will try to keep this entry brief, since so much of it can come across as mansplaining (which is really just cis-splaining—but I’ll save that for another day). It’s in reaction to several blog posts concerning appropriation and expropriation of black femininity by cis gay men (I’m assuming the Time piece was referring to cis gays and not trans gay men, or asexual men with feminine identifications, or any number of gender-sexual pluralisms that cross-cut one another). It’s also in reaction to the general conversation about white feminists. (Can we call it white feminism? The blogosphere is agog with critiques of this amorphous thing we call feminism.)

First off, appropriation. It’s not cool. I think that much is certain. If you appropriate or expropriate identifications or epistemic practices for affectation, you’re doing it wrong. It’s not only demeaning to the individual who engages in said practice (hair swinging; weave wearing; earring dangling; tight pants donning; catwalk walking) for the purposes of enacting an identity, it demeans the purpose of the practice and the entire group.

However, as this piece seems to indicate, there is a certain ownership that is being cast of over some enactments and not others. When I say enactments, I’m referring specifically to the practices of everyday life that constitute identity—the habits that, through repetition and interiorization, become the foundation of self-knowledge. Thus it is epistemic. My problem is the notion that any specific practice can be owned by any single person, or any single group.

Ownership. The word, so western and neoliberal, is now being applied to identity categories and subject positions within the discourses on feminism. Why does this not dismay more people? Let me give an example. If a subject is engaging in a set of epistemic practices that ze feels is emancipatory/cognitively necessary for ze’s well-being, I sincerely believe that we should respect ze’s practices and let ze live within those self-knowledge creating practices. Ze is not commodifying the practice of, say, Beyonce feminism. Ze is living and engaging in the practice at the epistemic level, creating the beautiful and unique ze.

This level of cognition, of practice, differs from the cis white gay boy who seeks to endear himself to his black friends by catwalking, throwing his ‘hair’ back, or pretending to take off hooped earrings. Those actions commodify the practices of the black lived experience. He seeks to take this commodity and deploy it in ways that for him do not work at the level of the epistemic. Rather, he takes them as humorous, as affectations, as representations of things he cannot (and probably should not) be. He, like the author of the Time piece indicates, doesn’t have to worry about coming across as an angry black woman; or being harassed on the street by police or any number of men; or any number of statistically relevant injustices that being an ethnic minority in this country necessarily entails. The cis white gay boy can return to being white; to being gay; to passing within a culture that tends not to police his body in the regular amounts that it does for, say, a trans woman of color.

But notice the distinction. Ze’s actions are epistemic, constituting a set of identifications that ze incorporates into the everyday. Ze is white. Ze is genderfluid. Ze is also gay. The gay boy of the Time piece, however, commodifies. Yet, is ze as guilty as the gay boy of expropriation or appropriation? That cognitive distinction seems important in the ongoing deliberations we have about identification/identity, about being/becoming. Because if a particular practice is always already owned by another group, then so much for intersectional epistemology, and there goes attempts of de-rigidifying the patriarchal and racist edifice of social categories.

Second, and lastly, white feminism. Is there such a thing. Sure radical feminism. I can’t speak much about my appreciation for radical feminists these days, most of whom are decidedly white. They tend to be TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) who seek to ‘tear down’ the gender binary yet have no compunction when doing so simultaneously denigrates transmen and transwomen. They are collateral damage.

But not all white feminists are decidedly radical. I admire black/poststructural/trans- feminism alike. I’m certain that J. Butler wouldn’t call herself radical in the sense indicated above. Nor would J. Halberstam. bell hooks is off that list, alongside Michelle Alexander and a host of others. And though the last two are black feminists and the former are queer white theorists/feminists, they are all intersectional readers and thinkers. Yet, will they or do they speak past one another. Does being white, or black, carry with it arrays of knowledge that are inherently incommensurable? Perhaps. Perhaps not. And so it becomes important to self-reflexively revise what we think to be virtuous in our own epistemic evaluations of others, theories, experiences, and facts. Anzaldua may have said that sometimes she’s a bridge, and sometimes she isn’t. But we not always withdrawn from one another–hence the importance of revisability.

The demands that we make on each other must (and I stress must) incorporate within them the self-critical realization that our epistemic values may in fact be vices, not virtues. That when we consider ourselves already right because of our social positions as either oppressed or privileged within the discourses of feminism, we have already begun a losing battle that, let’s face it, simply feed into dominant power relations.