Friday, October 21, 2011

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson--Staring: How We Look

            In this book, Garland-Thomson focuses on the interactive aspects of staring.  She is interested in why we stare, what happens when we stare, and how staring affects both the starer as well as the staree.  First, she breaks down what happens when we stare, noting that at its core, “Staring is an ocular response to what we don’t expect to see” (3).  More importantly, she observes that “We stare when ordinary seeing fails, when we want know more.  So staring is an interrogative gesture that asks what’s going on and demands the story….This intense visual engagement creates a circuit of communication and meaning-making” (3).  It is the narrative and “meaning-making” aspects of staring which intrigue me most, as that seems to be at play in the southern texts I am looking at.  The ugly women in these texts grab our attention in ways that the more conventional-looking women do not.  They ask us to consider why they look the way they do, what has scarred them or pushed them outside of normativity.
            Garland-Thomson spend the first half of the book focusing on images of the freak, examining the kinds of stares which occur and why, as well as the social and cultural meanings of the stare.  Garland-Thomson does distinguish the stare from the gaze, which she defines as “an oppressive act of disciplinary looking that subordinates its victim” (9).  She then goes on to further distinguish different kinds of stares: “the blank stare, the baroque stare, the separated stare,  the engaged stare, the stimulus-driven stare, the goal-driven stare, and the dominating stare” (9).  Each of these, she claims, has at its heart “the matter of appearance, of the ways we see each other and the ways we are seen” (9).  Despite the issues of power at play in staring, she is most interested in what she describes as staring’s “generative potential” (9).
Garland-Thomson explains how in the midst of a riot of sensory input, the brain works through the process of visual recognition called “orientation”: “Orientation is the attempt to impose a frame of reference on the chaos of a visual field by integrating what is unknown into what is already known….[requiring] scrutiny to impose a logical narrative on what at first glance seems to be random visual stimuli  ” (20)
In the second half of the book, she focuses on specific body parts which are most likely to induce stares: faces, hands, breasts, and bodies in general.  Faces, hands, and breasts are particularly charged locations on the body—faces and hands because of their key role in expression, interpretation, and primary bodily functions, and breasts because of their dual role in maternity and eroticism.  Breasts are unique in their object position in the stare, as they are an acceptable object of staring when erotic breasts, but inappropriate objects of the stare when maternal, scarred, or absent.  Faces, hands, and bodies, when non-normative, are potentially generative sites for narrative construction and information, as Garland-Thomson highlights in her discussion of photographs of handless victims of war and limbless war veterans and how they have been used to bring attention to important political issues.
Garland-Thomson quantifies the claim that Scarry makes, that beauty gives life to the beholder and the beheld, by making the heart beat faster: “The staring encounter arouses us as well.  Our heart rate increases when we are stared at; being subjected to a stare even registers on a cortical EEG.  So viscerally potent is the staring encounter that we can even feel stares directed at us.  In fact, humans from infancy can detect unseen stares.  We not only believe that we can tell when we are being stared at, but repeated experiments dating as early as the late nineteenth century suggest that in fact we do” (17).  So, contrary to Scarry’s claim that staring and gazing do no harm to the object of beauty, according to Garland-Thomson, they do have a palpable quality to them.  Whether harmful or harmless, though, I suppose is up for debate, and whether the heart-pounding is elation or palpitations is equally up for debate.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cynthia Shearer--The Celestial Jukebox

      This novel takes place in a small rural town called Madagascar, Mississippi, following the lives in its culturally diverse community.  Angus Chien, a second-generation Chinese man, runs the Celestial Grocery, the town’s center and home of a beautiful though unreliable jukebox which was last updated in the 1960s.  He employs Boubacar, a young boy who’s part of a Mauritanian immigrant community, whose love of African music leads him to discover the blues and Christian gospel of the Delta.  It also follows Raine, an unhappy suburban wife and mother suffering worsening panic attacks at having to drive in traffic, who is in a way healed by the oracular artwork of Marie Abide, a possible love child of Henri Matisse.

Celestial Art
It makes sense that a novel called “The Celestial Jukebox” would have music as a foregrounded theme and symbol.  Throughout the novel, music is emphasized as a primary art form of the South, as it functions both as repository for the region’s history as well as a cross-cultural language.  An equally important aspect of music, however, is its imaginative aspect as artistic expression.  This aspect is highlighted by its juxtaposition with other art forms in the novel, especially the found art sculptures made by Marie which incorporate sheet music into their designs.  The importance of art and the imagination in The Celestial Jukebox demonstrates that the most promising strategy for the survival of the South is through the work of its artists and the artwork they produce.
Given the scope of this paper, I wish to focus on the figure of Bebe Marie Abide and her artwork in the novel.  Certainly, the realization about the true nature of music that Dean Fondren makes—that “music was like a seine net…trawling the air to catch the spirits of the mutilated of the world, and to romance them back into the arms of the rest, who could help them.  Anything else was just noise, a plague of grasshoppers that would strip the land bare” (410)—applies to Marie’s artwork, especially her birdhouses which find their way into the lives of many in the novel. 
Marie’s imaginative perspective as an artist allows her to see possibilities which elude others.  The sheet music which to others looks like garbage on the side of the road appears to Marie as “abandoned valentines” (62), which she works into the birdhouses she creates from bottle caps and the covers of old books.  Like the blues music present throughout the book, Marie’s artistic vision also comes from a tragic background, as she was born out of wedlock to a mentally unstable artist who may possibly have conceived Marie with the artist Henri Matisse.  Also like the blues, Marie’s artistic vision is recognized as having a uniquely spiritual component.  While there are no stories about Marie selling her soul to the devil in exchange for her art, her memory of watching an image of herself painted by her mother burn in a zinc bathtub in Paris is certainly a vision of hell.
Marie’s artistic spiritual authority is recognized in various ways by other characters.  When Boubacar sees her bottle tree, he recognizes it as the work of an African sorcière (29).  Further, Marie’s encounters with the suburban Raine often have an oracular tone to them, with Marie making tantalizingly mysterious statements such as referring to her birdhouse as “A little fresh fruit from the orchard of abandoned dreams” (73).  Marie’s birdhouses may serve a similar purpose as her bottle tree, “detain[ing] whatever spirits meant harm to the household” (28).  Especially in Raine’s case, these art objects have magical properties which seem to help facilitate change in the lives of those to whom they have been entrusted.
Perhaps most importantly, Marie’s artistic life is one which openly rejects finance- and commodity-based capitalism.  As her own artwork not only is made from scavenged items but also sold outside of the system—literally, as when she is threatened by the “hospitality man” outside of the upscale grocery store for selling without a license (72).  She is arrested for breaking televisions for sale.  She refuses to properly participate in the kind of commodity-based capitalist system which is blamed both in the novel as well as by critics for the destruction of the South, both in the destruction of its idyllic landscape as well as the erosion of its unique cultural identity.  By ending the novel with the “Benediction” chapter, which follows the life of Marie, Shearer may be privileging the artistic vision as holding out the last hope for the perpetuation of the South.  Ending the novel on an exchange between Marie and Henri Matisse which starts about art and ends with her affirming in French that he is her father, Shearer emphasizes the important familial potential of cross-cultural artistic exchange, which has been thematized throughout the novel not only in the African-inflected blues and gospel music played in the Delta, but also in the ubiquitous expressions of the ineffable through folk art.  Even if the casino seems to be winning over the farmer, the South will always have its Robert Johnsons, Howard Finsters, and Bebe Marie Abides to translate these events into a southern vernacular through their art.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Leo Bersani--Is the Rectum a Grave? (1987)

Written in 1987 during the peak of the AIDS crisis, Bersani investigates the homicidal threats underlying much of the anti-gay rhetoric in the coverage of HIV and AIDS at the time.  Not only does Bersani note how the coverage of HIV, which addresses itself to an audience presumed straight and HIV-free, is much more interested in testing for and containing the disease, rather than caring for those suffering from AIDS and researching cures for it.  Identifying “how a public health crisis has been treated like an unprecedented threat” (198), Bersani also quotes several ludicrous accounts from supposed authorities (like doctors) whose portrayal of the “gay lifestyle” which they link to HIV and AIDS is ridiculous—in one of the article’s epigraphs, for example, John Hopkins Medical School Professor Opendra Narayan claims that “these people have sex twenty to thirty times an hour” (197). 
However, the turn that Bersani makes in his argument from this is startling.  From here, he starts with the premise that the big secret about sex is that “most people don’t like it” (197).  Informed by thinkers as diverse as Andrea Dworkin and Michel Foucault, Bersani zeroes in on the fundamental problem associated with the penetrative acts associated with HIV transmission: “to be penetrated is to abdicate power” (212).  He ties the stigma of anal penetration to both misogyny as well as more specific stigmas against prostitution in the early twentieth century.  First, he comments on the larger discussion of the effect of gay stereotype “styles” on the heterosexual world.  Calling into question the very valence of camp, Bersani notes that “if you’re out to make someone you turn off the camp” (208).  Disagreeing with those who claim that gay “leather queen” styles cause insecurity in the heterosexual males it is parodying, Bersani instead argues that “nothing forces them to see any relation between the gay-macho style and their image of their own masculinity” (207).  Further, he identifies that the hyperfemininity of drag queen performances “is both a way of giving vent to the hostility toward women that probably afflicts every male…and could also paradoxically be thought of as helping to deconstruct the image for women themselves” (208), though he admits that the “mindless, asexual, and hysterically bitchy” character of such performances most likely would provoke “a violently antimimetic reaction in any female spectator” (208).
In his discussion of the connection to prostitution, he notes the similarities between the imagined insatiability of the sexual appetites of gay men and prostitutes.  Like the rate of an orgasm every two minutes imagined in the epigraph, they are “reminiscent of male fantasies about women’s multiple orgasms” (211).  The promiscuity assumed in both populations is targeted in both populations as “the criminal, fatal, and irresistibly repeated act”; this focus allows those in power to “‘legitimate’ a fantasy of female sexuality as intrinsically diseased; and promiscuity in this fantasy, far from increasing the risk of infection, is the sign of infection” (211).
After considering the work of both anti-sex feminists such as Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin as well as the investigation of sexuality, especially in the realm of S&M, of Michel Foucault, Bersani comes to an important conclusion:
the self which the sexual shatters provides the basis on which sexuality is associated with power.  It is possible to think of the sexual as, precisely, moving between a hyperbolic sense of self and a loss of all consciousness of self.  But sex as self-hyperbole is perhaps a repression of sex as self-abolition.  It replicates self-shattering as self-swelling, as psychic tumescence.  If, as these words suggest, men are especially apt to “choose” this version of sexual pleasure, because their sexual equipment appears to invite by analogy, or at least to facilitate, the phallicizing of the ego, neither sex has exclusive rights to the practice of sex as self-hyperbole.  For it is perhaps primarily the degeneration of the sexual into a relationship that condemns sexuality to becoming a struggle for power….It is the self that swells with excitement at the idea of being on top, the self that makes the inevitable play of thrusts and relinquishments in sex an argument for the natural authority of one sex over the other. (218).
Bersani thinks that we should focus on this shattering as a key aspect of sexuality: what if stopped thinking of the so-called “passive” role in sex as demeaning, but rather that “the value of sexuality itself is to demean the seriousness of efforts to redeem it” (222).  Ultimately, “if the rectum is a grave in which the masculine ideal…of proud subjectivity is buried, then it should be celebrated for its very potential for death” (222).
Bersani’s identification of misogyny at the heart of the anti-gay hysteria as well as his call to arms to re-think the sex act itself seems to anticipate Sedgwicks’ Epistemology of the Closet and quite a bit of subsequent queer theory.  Reimagining and rethinking the meanings of the sites of sexuality is key theme in queer theory, which owes a lot to this essay.