How email ruined my life

—Catherine Zimmer

I got my first email account the fall I started graduate school, in 1995. Even then I had an inkling of the pressures that would come to be associated with this miracle of communication. My entry into grad school coincided with a relationship transitioning into a long-distance one, and what at first was a welcome mode of remaining tethered soon enough became a source, and an outlet, of demand, anxiety, guilt, and recrimination.

This early experience of the pressure and affective weight of email faded into memory alongside that relationship, and certainly at the time it did not occur to me to hold the medium responsible for the messages. But over the past couple of years, now that I am lucky enough to be firmly cemented in an academic job and stupid enough to have taken on an administrative role, that experience has reemerged for me as something of a retroactive portent of the place email would come to hold in my life. Because as anyone in an even remotely bureaucratic environment will tell you, “email” is no longer simply a way of communicating with others, though periodically a message gets through that is significant enough that the medium becomes momentarily transparent. Email is now an entity in and of itself—a gargantuan, self-perpetuating and purely self-referential monstrosity that I do not “use” but barely “manage,” a time-sucking and soul-crushing mass that I can only chip away at in an attempt to climb over or around to get to an actual task.

From epidemic-level ADHD and eye fatigue to degenerative spinal conditions at younger and younger ages—not to mention my self-diagnosed early-onset thumb arthritis—constant interaction with digital devices has arguably had widespread health consequences. It is also fraught with an expansion, intensification, and perversion of the emotions associated with that first email account. But while then I attached those affective elements to a romantic relationship, they are now purely indicative of my relationship to email “itself”: the phenomenon that makes constant and growing demands on my time, attention, and energy, requiring that I devote at least a modicum of substantive thought to each individual expression of its enormous, garbage-filled maw. Time spent on email has grown to hours every day. This is not a measure of increased “productivity.” In fact it is just the opposite, as answering email has become the forest I have to machete my way through just to get to the things that actually constitute my job. And while I do get angry at the jaw-dropping idiocy of certain student emails (Hi Mrs. Zimmer can u send me the syllabus because the final is tomorrow and i missed the last eleven weeks of class) and irritated at the endlessly accumulating details of academic work (Dear Dr. Zimmer, this is a friendly reminder that the due date for the Learning Outcomes Rubrics Departmental Self-Assessment Model is March 23rd) ultimately each one of these individually maddening iterations is just a sign of the incomprehensible sprawl of the medium. And when factored in with texting, messaging, social media, streaming television, and any number of other incoming and outgoing information flows, the sense of being “overwhelmed” seems unsurprisingly ubiquitous.

Email is of course inseparable from the character of any digital labor and the economy of which it is a part: it thus becomes a useful metonymic device to understand how convenience has become so profoundly debilitating. Though no one explicitly states it (because it would sound insane), the demand that we keep up with and process this level of information, and communicate coherently in return, is a demand that the human brain function closer to the speed of digital communications. Needless to say, it does not. Thus the unparalleled levels of prescription of amphetamines and pain medications are not merely the triumph of the pharmaceutical industry, but an attempt to make the human brain and body function alongside and through digital mediation. The relative ease of communications, the instantaneity of information exchange, does not make our lives simpler: it means that we are asked to attend to every goddamn thing that occurs to the countless people we know, institutions we are a part of, and every other organization whose mailing list you have been automatically placed on simply by having a single interaction with them. It’s like being able to hear the internal mutterings of both individual people and cultural constructs: a litany of the needs of others and the expectations of the social sphere (not to mention my own neurotic meanderings when I have to construct a careful response to someone, or an email I have sent goes unanswered). Finding it increasingly impossible to recognize and affectively react only to the articulations of each missive, I respond instead to the cacophonous noise of the whole damn thing. That noise is now constant, while its volume ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the work year. As the only constant, email becomes an end in itself. Email never goes away. Email is an asshole.

It is not surprising that this self-perpetuating mode of interaction comes alongside a proliferation of (self-)assessment and (self-)documentation—talking about what you will, have, or are doing instead of just doing it. Thus the ability to communicate about everything, at all times, seems to have come with the attendant requirements that we accompany every action with a qualitative and quantitative discourse about that action. Inside and in addition to this vast circularity are all those things that one’s job actually entails on a practical, daily basis: all the small questions, all the little tasks that need to be accomplished to make sure a class gets scheduled, a course description is revised, or a grade gets changed. Given how few academic organizations have well-functioning automatic systems that might allow these elements to be managed simply, and that my own university seems especially committed to individually hand-cranking every single gear involved in its operation on an ad hoc basis, most elements of my job mean that emails need to be sent to other people.

Once I send an email, I can do nothing further until someone sends an email back, and thus in a sense, sending that email became a task in itself, a task now completed. More and more it is just a game of hot potato with everyone supposedly moving the task forward by getting it off their desk and onto someone else’s, via email. Every node in this network are themselves fighting to keep up with all their emails, in the back and forth required before anything can actually be done. The irony of the incredible speed of digital mediation is thus that it often results in an intractable slowness in accomplishing simple tasks. (My solution has been to return to the telephone, which easily reduces any 10-email exchange into a 2-minute conversation. Sidenote: I never answer my own phone.)

In case it isn’t already clear, such an onslaught of emails, and the pressure of immediacy exerted sometimes explicitly but mostly by the character of the media, means that we no longer get to leave work (or school, or our friends or our partners). We are always at work, even during time off. The joy of turning on our vacation auto-reply messages is cursory, for even as we cite the “limited access” we will have to email (in, like, Vancouver), we know that we can and will check it. And of course we know that everyone else knows that it’s a lie. Even if we really do take time away from email, making ourselves unavailable (not looking at email, not answering our texts) does not mean email has not been sent to us and is not waiting for us. And we know it, with virtually every fiber of our being. Our practical unavailability does not mitigate our affective understanding that if we ignore email too long, not only will work pile up, but there will be emotional consequences. I can feel the brewing hostility of the email senders: irritated, anxious, angry, disappointed.

Even if I start to relax on one level, on another my own anxiety, irritation, and guilt begin to grow. Email doesn’t go away. It’s never over. It’s the fucking digital Babadook, a relentless, reflexive reminder of the unfathomable mass underlying every small transaction of information.

The nonstop stream of communication and its affective vortex are in part what philosopher Gilles Deleuze (and now many others) have described as “societies of control,” distinguished not by discipline but by the constant modulation and management of the flow of information. Ultimately we are exhausted by the endless negotiation of this unmappable terrain, and our personal and professional labors increasingly have the character of merely keeping ourselves afloat. Which is not to say that discipline no longer functions: those excluded from the privilege of control will often find themselves subject to the sharper baton of policing and incarceration.

There does appear to be increasingly widespread recognition that email is having a significant effect on both the amount of work one does and the increasing threat of that work to health and well-being. A widely and enthusiastically misreported news story that France had instituted a ban on sending work email after 6:00pm provided a much-needed salve for the idea that there is no outside to the onslaught. Never mind that this was a wishful, apocryphal version of a French labor agreement that in reality didn’t cut off email at any hour—the story still allowed France to perform its ongoing service as the English-speaking world’s fetish of a superior, butter-drenched, bicycle-riding quality of life, a life in which steak frites is now accompanied by possible escape from a particularly maddening incarnation of digital labor. That life is apparently now the stuff of internet rumor and media fancy.

The range of feelings I associate with the era of my first email account roll on through now and then as I check my inbox, and I could probably name them, though perhaps they were never discrete. And I understand that it is my job as a participant in digital culture to respond to email, and text, and instant messaging—in writing and in sentiment. But the truth is that I am just really tired. Perhaps the vacuum in affect attested to by the accumulation of emoticons and emojis has little to do with the flattening effect of digital communication. Maybe feelings are simply exhausted.

Catherine Zimmer is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies and English at Pace University in New York City. She is the author of Surveillance Cinema (NYU Press, 2015).

[This piece was originally posted on Avidly, Los Angeles Review of Books channel.]

Marriage equality: A conservative’s dream

—Kimberly D. Richman

On November 4, 2008, I was lying in a hospital bed, on bed rest while pregnant with my twin daughters, watching the election coverage that first delivered the elated news of President Obama’s win, followed by the heartbreak that Californians had passed Proposition 8, inscribing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. On June 26, 2015, I awoke to a celebratory text message from the National Center for Lesbian Rights that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared a nation-wide fundamental right to marriage for all couples, same-sex or different sex, and had the joy of explaining what this meant to my now 6 ½ year old daughters. Quite literally, the world shifted in the time it took them to reach first grade.

licensetowedIt’s safe to say that the dizzying pace of change in the world of same-sex unions was unexpected by those on both sides of the issue. What seemed like a distant goal in 1996 when I first started researching LGBT family rights, in the wake of the Defense of Marriage Act, is now so commonly accepted a truth that government buildings across the country—not just in my home town of San Francisco—have shrouded themselves in rainbow lights to commemorate the landmark Obergefell ruling. So much so, that to my daughters and their classmates, the idea of denying same-sex couples the right to marry doesn’t even register as a reasonable possibility.

But equally as surprising as the pace of movement on the legalization of same-sex marriage, is the ultimately conservative rationale and vision of family and partnerships on which both recent decisions by Justice Anthony Kennedy rest. Kennedy’s florid prose holds that “[t]he lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life…Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

Kennedy is correct in asserting that expressly excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry does them dignitary harm; I’ve found this to be the case for the hundreds of couples I interviewed and surveyed on the topic in my own research, as have other scholars and activists. However, to elevate the aspirations of those who wish to marry above those who choose to couple or do family and romance in other ways, entrenches a deeply conservative value—one that the proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, Prop 8, and other anti-gay measures hold dear, ironically.

While Kennedy is careful to state that marriage need not involve a nuclear family with children, he does not leave much room for the myriad family and relationship forms that we now know some Americans choose—unmarried cohabitation, polyamory, or single parenthood, to name just a few.

In short, the conservatives who fought for so long to “protect” marriage should be thrilled by Justice Kennedy’s sweeping affirmation of the importance of marriage as “a keystone of our social order” and “building block of our national community.” Indeed, these couples who undertook a years-long, expensive, taxing legal battle to enter the institution of marriage do far more to affirm it than do the rapidly increasing numbers of heterosexuals who have given up on marriage, and chosen to do family and romance without it.

It remains to be seen whether those—gay, straight, bi or trans—for whom dyadic marriage has no appeal take up the cause as fervently to extend the material benefits that accompany it in future legal and political actions. When they do so, one can only wonder whether they will find an ally in Justice Kennedy.

Kimberly D. Richman, author of License to Wed: What Legal Marriage Means to Same-Sex Couples (NYU Press, 2014) and Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law (NYU Press, 2009) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Obama and the N-word

—Andra Gillespie

The president said the N-word, and it became a top news story.

Now, it wasn’t the first time a president said the word — recordings exist in which Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon use the term artfully and prolifically.

However, it was the first time in recent memory that we know that a president used the term and meant to be heard saying it publicly. And, of course, it is not lost on audiences that said president is black.

Since I am someone who studies how black politicians born after 1960 advocate for African American interests, this story definitely piqued my interest.

What does it mean for any president, much less a black one who used race-neutral campaign tactics, to use such a word?

And is our attention on this story a distraction, especially in light of real racial issues, like police brutality and the recent hate crime in Charleston?

A proper use of language

I think people are making a bigger deal about President Obama’s use of this word than is necessary.

Yes, it is rarely heard in polite company. But if one has to use the word, the way in which President Obama deployed it was entirely proper.

He was not using it as part of his Chris Rock or Richard Pryor impression. He was not calling out any person or group of people. He used the term in the context of talking about people who say that word.

And frankly, by using the actual word instead of resorting to the contrivance of saying “the N-word,” he was rhetorically effective.

The problem is our collective American tendency to be superficial.

When President Obama invoked the N-word, he was making an important point about structural racism and our moral responsibility to be vigilant against all remaining forms of racial discrimination.

He rightly pointed out that some people think that refraining from the use of racial slurs is the sum of eliminating racism.

He rightfully observed that removing those words from one’s vocabulary is but a small part of promoting racial equality.

Yes, we should modify our language to be respectful of all people, but one can racially profile, deny jobs, housing and equal pay, and provide substandard schooling to minorities without calling them a racial slur. Frankly, these things are materially more important.

In his own way, President Obama was trying to shock Americans into thinking more critically about racial issues.

Starting a conversation about race

There is a tendency in this country to avoid serious conversations about race.

We’d rather relegate racism to the 1950s or contend that it is a province of backwards southerners.

Then, when we are confronted with the facts of continuing inequality — like the fact that in New York, black and Latino youth were more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police without cause or that last year, the Pew Research Center found that median white net worth was 13 times the median net worth of blacks — we look for every other possible explanation and refuse to confront the ways that racism explains a lot of the disparity.

Americans’ tendency to not address an obvious cause of so much inequality and strife dooms us to repeat the same cycle of racial conflict and even violence over and over again.

Some people might argue that by resurrecting such a hurtful word, President Obama was creating another smokescreen for racial issues.

Instead of talking about healing Charleston, for instance, news programs are devoting airtime to deconstructing the president’s use of this word.

Just one of the many media dissections of the president’s language.

Hopefully, though, the president’s deployment of this term (and his larger argument for having deeper discussions about how to reduce racial inequality) will sink in because of the shock of having him speak so bluntly about the issue.

If by next week, we are talking about actual structural inequality and not about the fact that President Obama said the N-word (to be clear, the current debate about the Confederate flag is an important one but a symbolic issue), then perhaps we can give him credit for having started a meaningful dialogue about race.

Andra Gillespie is Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).

[This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.]

A Queer Father’s Day

—Joshua Gamson

Given that I’m one half of a two-dad duo, I should probably see Father’s Day as double the pleasure, double the fun. After all, Mother’s Day is a somewhat awkward time for us—more on that in a minute—and Father’s Day would seem like a good chance to offset our May discomfort with some extra June celebration.

Also, it still seems to be the case that fathers as parents are taken less seriously than mothers, which ironically serves to justify the fact that women still do much more childcare than men; at my kids’ public elementary school, mothers still do most of the volunteering and organizing while a Dad’s Club invites the menfolk to “work hard and play hard,” to “get your hands dirty” with “light maintenance,” “campus cleanup,” and to raise funds through A’s game outings and the auctioning of manual labor. So Father’s Day seems like a nice chance for us to exhibit a more expansive view of fatherhood, in which men are necessarily full-on, competent parents rather than assistants, both “fathering” and “mothering,” clean- and dirty-handed, lifting heavy things and also doing hair. Plus it coincides with LGBT Pride Month, which I’ve often taken as an opportunity to parade around with my family basking in the cheers of people who are excited by the very fact of us.

This year, the state of my birth and upbringing, Michigan, has just passed legislation making it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective parents on religious grounds, so apparently some people still don’t want us to be the fathers we are. We gay parents may have something to teach the world about being parents, though: There’s evidence that we operate with a more equal division of childcare labor than straight couples, and have a tendency to be “more motivated, more committed than heterosexual parents on average.” So there: We’re awesomer! Two Dads are better than one! Father’s Day should really be my favorite day of the year.

Still, somehow I have a hard time getting into it.

One problem, of course, is that Father’s Day is basically bullshit. It began in the early 20th century, as Ian Crouch has written (drawing on the work of Leigh Eric Schmidt) as a “celebration of the father’s engaged and able participation in the family” and “a sentimental corollary to Mother’s Day,” but was rapidly commercialized. From the beginning it was seen as a bit of nonsense, since giving gifts to the higher wage earner “created a kind of anxiety about gift-giving that still lingers,” but it got a big boost in the 1930s from a New York menswear trade group, which created the National Council for the Formation of Father’s Day and aggressively promoted the holiday as an explicitly commercial one. By the time Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972, my own father was twelve years into parenthood. At that time, it was all about neckties and booze, symbols, as Crouch notes, of the middle-class “dad as a man apart.” Even now, when advertising suggests a kinder, gentler father—the soccer dad or nurturing diaper-changer, eligible to consume skin care products, vaguely emasculated and checking his phone for instructions from his wife—the commercial representations still “emphasize fatherhood as a fraught and unsettled emotional enterprise.”

Though I could certainly use some more Kiehl’s products and some Macallan single malt—email me for my mailing address—those Father’s Day origins don’t have much to do with what I understand as parenting. More importantly, it’s hard for me to see myself anywhere within this scene. I am neither the traditional father bringing home the bacon, nor the new Mr. Mom stay-at-home dad frying it up in a pan. There is no Mother in my home to whom I am a corollary, sentimental or practical. My fatherhood is basically a settled and unfraught, if also exhausting and sometimes tedious, emotional enterprise. My identity as a father is very strong, I love my kids like crazy and I think I’m pretty good at parenting, but Father’s Day seems to be made for other people and for other reasons.

It also seems wrong to treat Father’s Day as a solution to my ambivalent relationship to Mother’s Day, as if the doubling up on dads makes motherhood irrelevant. Mother’s Day brings some stuff up in my household. We don’t refer, for instance, to the women who helped bring our daughters into the world as their “mothers,” mainly because they are not. We refer to them by their first names, or as aunt so-and-so, and to the fact that they carried our kids inside them and gave birth to them. (We don’t talk yet about their egg donors, but when we do, it will certainly not be as mothers but as friends and people-who-helped-you-become.) Sometimes we call them “belly mommies,” to remind the kids that they came into the world like everyone else; “gestational surrogate” doesn’t quite have capture the relationships’ intimacy.To varying degrees and in different ways they are family—one, an old friend from way before the girls were born, is taking the girls to her annual family reunion in a few weeks. Still, these women are at once present and absent. We talk to them and about them, we see one of them occasionally and the other regularly. There are other mothers aplenty in our lives, of course, including my mom and my husband’s mom (who lives in our house), not to mention the many other women who love our children. But our daughters don’t have a mother.

Usually that’s not especially relevant—our kids are well loved, well adjusted, and lucky. But Mother’s Day serves as a potent reminder of our family’s difference, and of our different status in other people’s eyes that is tied to our children’s apparent motherlessness, about which we and our children do have feelings. Our older daughter once came home from Mother’s Day week in tears. Despite a Family Diversity curriculum and a queer principal, teachers and children can’t help but reinforce the notion that not having a mother in your life makes you somehow lesser. Reasonable accommodations are made: a shift in terminology when you’re in the room, some extra discussion, an alternative to the assignment of making a Mother’s Day card. Yet the message resonates, perhaps because it’s obvious that we are statistically rare—the only two-dad family in a school of several hundred—and even more because the one-mom/one-dad family is still ideologically dominant. Our kids watch television. They live on this planet. These girls know what the culture thinks of us, and sometimes it hurts, enough that I wonder if it’s ethical for schools to even celebrate Mother’s Day.

The politics of chucking out Mother’s Day without addressing gender inequality seem iffy, though. Especially in the United States, childcare remains an institutionally undervalued—if culturally romanticized—form of gendered labor. As Vivian Gornick and Marcia Meyers have shown, in Canada and much of Europe, family leave policies, labor market regulations, publicly funded early childhood education, and so on “encourage gender equality by strengthening mothers’ ties to employment and encouraging fathers to spend more time caregiving at home.” In the U.S., “parents—overwhelmingly mothers—must loosen their ties to the workplace to care for their children,” negotiate for leave or flex time, and buy private childcare or scramble for it, all of which exacts “a high price in terms of gender inequality in the workplace and at home, family stress and economic insecurity.” Behind this, the reproductive freedom of women in particular—the freedom not to reproduce, for instance, or to do so as a single woman—is under constant attack. In that context, rejecting Mother’s Day, or replacing it with the Parent’s Day nobody knows about but that has been on the books since 1994, seems misplaced. Adopting a gender-blind approach to the inequality between (in this case, heterosexual) mothers and fathers makes about as much sense as adopting a color-blind approach in a relentlessly racist society.

And so, each Mother’s Day, I am stuck, not just because of what it means to my kids but because of what it means to me: between resisting what Adrienne Rich called the patriarchal institution of motherhood and honoring the potentially empowering experiences of mothering. Father’s Day, even double Father’s Day or supergay Father’s Day, does nothing to resolve that tension.

Sure, Father’s Day is an outmoded, Hallmark-serving holiday that reiterates sexist gender role divisions and tired gender binaries, valorizes a narrow, class-specific, heterosexual version of family, and implies that people who choose not to have kids are less worthy of admiration and should at best be ignored. It’s part of a regime of normalcy that offers elevated social status and advantages to those who conform. I’ve experienced quite a bit of that since becoming a father; like marriage, parenthood is a status that, whether you want it to or not, legitimizes you, makes you easier to assimilate, and in doing so, positions you against those who do not want to (or cannot) conform in the same way. Father’s Day feels partly like a self-congratulatory celebration of that status hike, and that feels cheap and wrong to me.

And yet, I will not insist that Father’s Day be banned at my house. That normalcy is part of what makes Father’s Day meaningful, if only for a few minutes, for my children. For them, probably more than for kids in more conventional families, it’s a chance to participate in the parent-focused holidays around which they observe considerable hoopla, and to remind themselves that our family is like other families, which is also true. Father’s Day is an affirmation, maybe some kind of relief from feeling outside the circle, and an opportunity to express gratitude. I want that for them. They deserve it.

Perhaps the trick is to balance all that normalizing with queerness, to celebrate not just a respectably-gay version of fatherhood but also the ways in which our fathering is different, to align ourselves not so much with the Dad’s-Club-and-aftershave vision but with those parents who aren’t trying to be and will never be in that club—for instance, the genderqueer dads among us, the women who are fathers and the men who are mothers and the folks in between. Perhaps it’s not just about toasting the fact that we are fabulous fathers, but taking another moment to look at the ways so much of the world, including a lot of this country, still deny reproductive justice to so many, including (but not only) to people like us. “We are not having that,” the toast might be.

For now, I’ll still take breakfast in bed. It took a lot to get here, and parenting is hard, and these girls owe us. Then I’ll call my dad. I might be wearing a wig.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (forthcoming in September 2015 from NYU Press).

‘Fun Home’ and Pride

—Amber Jamilla Musser

MotheralOn June 7th, 2015, the musical Fun Home emerged triumphant. It won 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, Best Lead Actor in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. The significance of these wins cannot be overstated. A musical based on a graphic memoir featuring a lesbian, her gay father, and the rest of the family has been thrust into the purview of mainstream America—and really, who can resist having ALL of the feelings when Sydney Lucas sings “Ring of Keys?” Moreover, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron have made history as the first women to win a Tony for best songwriting team.

It is clear that Fun Home gives people many reasons to be proud, especially in a month when we traditionally celebrate LGBT pride. One of the things that I find most moving about the musical (and the original graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel) is the way it actually subverts traditional narratives of pride and shame based on particular understandings of identity and masochism.

One of the conventional understandings of Pride is that it exists to celebrate triumph over homophobia and prejudice against LGBT people. That this narrative privileges a particular form of progress and has been easier for particular segments of the LGBT population is something that has been written about extensively by other queer studies scholars. In this post, I’m more interested in mentioning the ways that this conventional version of identity politics shores up a particular vision of masochism. One of the main arguments in my book Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism is that the framework that we’ve been using to understand the relationship between individuals and power is masochism. In the book that means various things, but in the context of Pride, it has meant reveling in the wounds that produce LGBT identity—triumph would not be possible if there were no obstacle to overcome and the more wounds that are available, the more visible the triumph and the more celebrated the identity/person.

While I am not the first to describe this relationship between identity, woundedness, and masochism, I argue that this narrative frames our understanding of what it is to be an individual so that those with the privilege of appearing wounded are able to do because they are already part of an assumed arc of redemption and celebration while those whose wounds are less affective and more structural in terms of access to resources cannot access this arc in the same way (see last year’s post on Kara Walker as an example).

On the surface, it would appear as though Fun Home could fall easily into this particular trope, but it smartly sidesteps the arc of progress. In her retrospective gaze at her family life and its relationship to her father’s gayness, Alison (the oldest version of the character that we see) doesn’t pity her father or frame his suicide as the effect of a bygone prejudice that she has been fortunate to avoid. The question is not what would have happened to Bruce Bechdel had he lived in an era when he could live freely as a gay man. Neither is the focus on Alison’s ability to come out as a college student and live as a butch because things are better now. The universe of the musical understands these characters as inhabiting different modes of queerness, but it doesn’t ask us to do a comparison (despite the fact that Bruce commits suicide, which would seem to be the ultimate masochistic act).

Instead, the character whose life we imagine might have been different is Bechdel’s mother, Helen, played achingly by Judy Kuhn, whose song near the end of the show, “Days and Days” is a tearjerker —not because she is self-pitying but because she is resigned. This is structural difference at work. She knows that her suffering does not connect to later progress or triumph, but it does not diminish her work or her pain.

Where does this lacuna of feeling lie in a world structured by suffering or triumph, a world where the individual is a masochist in order to receive redemption through pity? Throughout the musical, we see so many moments when the semi-closeted world that Bruce inhabits that his daughter so desperately wants to remember and connect to, is not uniformly sad; there is fun—a dance with a casket, a furtive sighting of a kindred spirit (the butch that Lucas sings so movingly about). In all, it is not a play about moving through masochism to find identity, but about recognizing the many different notes being played at the same time. The arc of identity need not be neat or masochistic (so as to end in triumph), but it makes one feel, and gives reason for finding different narratives of individuality.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014).

Celebrating Revolutionary Blackness: Haitian Flag Day

—Bertin M. Louis, Jr.

[This post originally appeared on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, NewBlackMan (in Exile).]

Haitian-flag3

In communities across the globe, thousands of Haitians celebrate Haitian Flag Day every May 18 at concerts and ceremonies, on the Internet and at festivals and parades. The flag not only reflects pride in Haitian roots but it is the flag of the first black republic in the world. The Haitian flag takes on renewed meaning as an anti-racist symbol of revolutionary blackness and freedom in a continuing time of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Its inception was from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803).

On May 18, 1803, in the city of Archaie, not far from Haiti’s current capital of Port-au-Prince, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the blacks and the first leader of an independent Haiti, and Alexandre Pétion, the leader of the mulattoes, agreed on an official flag, with blue and red bands placed vertically. Haitian heroine Catherine Flon, who also served as a military strategist and nurse, sewed Haiti’s first flag. However, the flag was modified on Independence Day (January 1st) when the blue and the red bands were placed horizontally with the blue band on top of the red band. Haiti used the red and blue flag until 1964, when President-for life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier used a vertical black and red flag and added a modified version of the arms of the republic during the Duvalier regime, which lasted from 1971 to 1986. On February 25, 1986, after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled Haiti on an American-charted jet and the Duvalier regime fell apart, the Haitian people in its vast majority requested that the red and blue flag be brought back. The red and blue flag remains the official flag of Haiti.

Haiti was the French colony of Saint-Domingue before the revolution. A 1697 treaty between the French and the Spanish created the colony on the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Saint-Domingue was known as “the pearl of the Antilles” because the industrialization of sugar in the region enriched its French absentee owners and made it one of the most successful sugar colonies in history. The arduous labor required for sugar production resulted in the virtual eradication of the indigenous Taino Arawak population and an average seven-year life span for Africans who were brought against their will. In an area roughly the size of Maryland enslaved Africans produced indigo, tobacco and at one point in history two-fifths of the world’s sugar and almost half of the world’s coffee.

Physical and psychological violence were used to maintain plantation production processes. As sociologist Alex Dupuy writes it was not uncommon for slave masters to “hang a slave by the ears, mutilate a leg, pull teeth out, gash open one’s side and pour melted lard into the incision, or mutilate genital organs. Still others used the torture of live burial, whereby the slave, in the presence of the rest of the slaves who were forced to bear witness, was made to dig his own grave…Women had their sexual parts burned by a smoldering log; others had hot wax splattered over hands, arms, and backs, or boiling cane syrup poured over their heads.” Within this violent and dehumanizing environment, many enslaved Africans resisted and fought against their captors and participated in the most radical revolution of the “Age of Revolution.”

The Haitian Revolution was more radical than the American Revolutionary war (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) because it challenged chattel slavery and racism, the foundation of American and French empires. As the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote: “The Haitian Revolution was the ultimate test to the universalist pretensions of both the French and the American revolutions. And they both failed. And they both failed. In 1791, there is no public debate on the record, in France, in England, or in the United States on the right of black slaves to achieve self-determination, and the right to do so by way of armed resistance.” The Haitian Revolution led to the destruction of plantation capitalism on the island where both modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located.

Through the efforts of black people and the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, British and Spanish forces were defeated and independence from the French colonial master was achieved. The only successful slave revolt in human history resulted in the formation of Haiti as the world’s first black republic, which extended the rights of liberty, brotherhood and equality to black people. Unlike the United States and France, Haiti was the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens regardless of race unlike the United States where only propertied white males had the privilege of full citizenship.

The Haitian Revolution would spawn uprisings among captive Africans throughout the Caribbean and the United States. The revolution also influenced other Western Hemispheric liberation movements. Haitian blogger Pascal Robert observes that Venezuelan military and political leader Simon Bolivar went to Haiti to receive the military assistance and material support from Haiti’s then president Alexandre Petion. Bolivar used those Haitian connections to liberate colonial territories from Spanish rule. The Haitian flag reflects and symbolizes this unique and promising moment for people of African descent – black freedom in a world dominated by white supremacy.

Haitian Flag day celebrations take on renewed meaning when we recall the recent treatment of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere. In February 2015 a young Haitian man was lynched in the Dominican Republic. This lynching occurred at a time where the Dominican state has revoked the citizenship of Haitian-descended Dominicans. Essays from sociologist Regine O. Jackson’s edited volume Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora (Routledge 2011) discusses how Haitians serve as repugnant cultural “others” in Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and Cuba. In Haiti a post-earthquake cholera outbreak introduced by Nepalese soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has claimed 9,000 Haitian lives and affected more than 735,000 people. This preventable tragedy is in addition to earthquake aid that did not go to Haitians but mostly went “to donors’ own civilian and military entities, UN agencies, international NGOs and private contractors.” A recent essay from Latin Correspondent reporter Nathalie Baptiste recognizes anti-Haitian policies in Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

While we must attend to the differences in the local histories, varying socioeconomic factors and political situations of each country mentioned, a pattern of alienation, expulsion, elimination, marginalization and stigmatization of Haitians is evident when reviewing recent news and scholarly publications.

Anti-Haitianism is also prevalent in the Bahamas where I conduct anthropological research and where a new immigration policyadversely affected Haitians. A brief anecdote that I discuss in my book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press 2014)”illustrates this fact. Towards the end of ethnographic research in New Providence, I was invited by a Bahamian friend to speak about the importance of education to elementary school children at an afterschool program. The children, who all sat around me in a circle, were black. As I spoke to them about the importance of reading, studying, doing well on tests, and getting help when they encountered difficulties, one girl was struck with a look of astonishment when I mentioned that I was of Haitian descent. After my speech I took the opportunity to ask her why she was so stunned. She replied that I didn’t look Haitian to her but that I looked Bahamian. So I asked her “so what does a Haitian look like?” Replying in Bahamian Creole she and her friends replied that Haitians were “scrubby,” meaning that they have an uneven or mottled dark complexion. They also said of Haitians that “Dey (They) black,” “Dey smell bad” and “Dey look like rat.”

These comments came from children who are of African descent (85 percent of the Bahamas is black) and the darkest black-skinned Bahamian child in that group said that Haitians were “scrubby.” This story from the field reflects the current crisis in Haitian identity in the Western Hemisphere and why it is necessary to celebrate Haitian Flag day as a way to resist the dehumanizing effects of anti-blackness. Anti-blackness is a key component of white supremacy “an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.” In this example, young Bahamian children do the work of white supremacy through their use of anti-Haitian and anti-Black stereotypes.

The stigmatization of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere should alarm other black people because Haitian instability also reflects the current insecurity of blacks around the globe. The deaths of West African migrants in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe, Ethiopian Jews who are encouraged to either leave Israel or be imprisoned, police brutality against blacks in favelas in Brazil, and attacks against African immigrants by black South Africans should remind us of this ongoing crisis, which many people view as normative (i.e. there’s always death and destruction among Africans and in the African Diaspora). But we do not have to look outside of the borders of the United States to understand the deprivation of the humanity of black people. The current #BlackLivesMattermovement against police killings of unarmed black people is another reminder of the disposability of black life in the modern world which continues a pattern of anti-blackness that harkens back to the transatlantic slave trade.

Anti-blackness began with the forced marches of Africans from the interiors of the continent to African coasts where they were sold as chattel and would become the engine that fueled European colonial wealth. It continued during the Middle Passage where white captains tightly packed blacks together on slave ships and threw black bodies into the Atlantic Ocean with the hope that large numbers of human cargo would offset increased deaths. Anti-blackness was codified in the colonies and territories where the legally imposed identity of slave was passed from mother to child and became associated with blackness.

Anti-blackness is prevalent during this contemporary period in the media coverage of the killings of Walter Scott and Eric Garner as corporate news channels show their video-recorded killings at the hands of American law enforcement on a loop and refer to the black youth of Baltimore rebelling against unequal treatment under the law as “thugs.” Anti-blackness is also reflected in the current relations between Haitians and the nations they live in as well as how other countries treat people of African descent.

In closing, the Haitian flag reminds us that white superiority and black inferiority are fallacies and have no basis in biology and that white supremacy can be challenged and defeated as the Haitian Revolution demonstrated. Due to the poor treatment of Haitians throughout the Western Hemisphere we should also understand why Haitians are proud of their heritage and celebrate the anniversary of their flag. But the Haitian flag is also a flag that belongs to people of African descent around the globe, as do other flags. It is one of many symbols that Haitians and other people of African descent should utilize in resistance to the dehumanizing and deadly effects of capitalism, state power and white supremacy on black bodies. Overall, Haitian Flag Day should remind all of us to celebrate revolutionary blackness and to continue to challenge white supremacy in the struggle to create dignified lives for black people worldwide.

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. is the author of My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press, 2014) and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also the creator of #ShamelesslyHaitian, a Twitter event where Haitians express pride and educate others about their history and culture on Haitian Independence Day and Haitian Flag Day. Follow him on Twitter @MySoulIsInHaiti.

Ferguson, race, and the disability politics of the teen brain

In an article published on Somatosphere this week, author Julie Passanante Elman discusses race, disability, and the volatile teen brain. Read an excerpt from the essay below—and be sure check out more from the website’s series, Inhabitable Worlds. 

In February 2014, University of Missouri students made national news when they formed a human wall to protest the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence on their campus. Westboro arrived to denounce Michael Sam, a gay “Mizzou Tiger” who would become the first openly gay NFL player. Mizzou students eagerly donned “Stand with Sam” rainbow buttons and “WE ARE ALL COMOSEXUAL” t-shirts (an homage to “COMO,” or how locals refer to Columbia, MO). The nation turned its collective eye to “The Middle,” a North American region that has been associated (at times, stereotypically, by those on the coasts) with religious conservatism, provincialism, and intolerant attitudes toward cultural difference or sexual non-normativity. Rather than asking “what’s the matter with Kansas?” in frustration, onlookers celebrated Missouri’s anti-homophobic moment of conviction, its investment in creating an “inhabitable world” for queers living outside metronormativity’s coastal enclaves.

While one “Missouri Mike” made his NFL bid, another would never arrive on his campus or attend his first college class. On August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO, Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. His body lay in the street for four hours, as his blood pooled on the asphalt, warmed by the same unyielding Missouri sun that shone on MU’s Francis Quadrangle as students returned in late August. Mizzou students returned to a very different campus. Many of my students were returning from their childhood homes in St. Louis and its neighboring suburbs. Many were from Ferguson. Others were the sons and daughters of St. Louis-area police officers.

In late November, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson nearly a week before the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. Politically committed MU students quickly mobilized to support the Ferguson protests. Using the social media handle “MU4Mike,” students organized die-ins in the student center and City Hall and were supported by a variety of faculty, including a Vice Chancellor.

Mizzou’s Facebook page posted photos of the event (including the one above), which incited a variety of hateful responses:

  • “White lives matter too!”
  • “…[B]lack lives appear to matter to everyone but black people…the black community is the one offing themselves in record numbers, not white cops defending themselves from charging aggressors.”
  • “Raise your kids not your hands.”
  • “How stupid. All lives matter. Stop wallowing in self pity [sic]. This was and is not a race issue. Get real.”

Meanwhile, campus police monitored the MU Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center after an anonymous threat to the center (“Let’s burn down the black culture center & give them a taste of their own medicine.”) appeared on YikYak, a mobile, anonymous social media application.

Perhaps no image better encapsulates the abruptness with which Mizzou’s political landscape shifted than this screenshot of Mizzou’s Facebook page:

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Enveloped in hopeful sunlight, an African-American student stands with his hands raised in peaceful protest. He stands in stark contradistinction to racist comments (“Your [sic] a thug bro!!”) as well as a meme of a white father and son pointing, as if to the man in photo, to proclaim, “Look son, a faggot!” Less than ten months after the campus had “Stood with Sam,” entangled racism and homophobia seemed more virulent than ever.

As an MU faculty member, I wanted to contribute my perspective to this special series—first off—to spotlight our students’ courageous (and ongoing) activism to make Mizzou a more inhabitable world for all of its students. As a critical queer/disability studies scholar contemplating Ferguson, I am thinking of the challenging questions posed by queer/disability activist Eli Clare, who invites us to map the sedimentary layers of injustice.

Continue reading on Somatosphere.

Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

—Jason Whitesel

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.