the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Friday, March 31, 2006

Girls Gone Wild

A recent essay in Time (posted to Time’s online magazine a week ago) entitled “The Myth about Girls Going Wild “ criticizes the prevalence of the “girls gone wild” stereotype, and particularly its association with Spring Break bacchanalia. Cox argues that an overly conservative attitude toward women’s behavior makes drunken revelry one of the few appropriate ways in which certain kinds of libidinal urges can be expressed: “Maybe it would be progress if we had a definition of femininity expansive enough to include shaking one's thing without raising one's top — so that girls could go a little wild without having to rely on what we used to refer to as the "sorority girl's mating call": "I am soooo drunk.”

This argument is undoubtedly basically correct, but what is perhaps even more intriguing is the essay’s by-line: Ana Marie Cox—an independent journalist who is, of course, best-known by her former alter-ego in the blogosphere: Wonkette (though it was announced in January that Cox was stepping down from the blog to be a full-time author). Wonkette (whose blogs would frequently celebrate their drunken origins, and reveled their unabashedly prurient fascination with the sexual underside the American politics), ironically, shared far more in common with the “girls gone wild” stereotype than she does with narrative voice of the Time essay.

This contrast between the two starkly opposed personas of Cox (as seen in the Time essay) and Wonkette is reminiscent of Nieh Huanling’s 1976 novel Mulberry and Peach , in which the two eponymous “women from China” referred to in the English subtitle are actual two distinct personas of the same Chinese immigrant. The novel begins with “Peach” insisting adamantly to an INS officer that “Mulberry”—a culturally conservative Chinese woman who, like the Nieh Hualing herself, fled the Communists to Taiwan in 1949, and then fled the Nationalists to the US in the 1960s—is “dead,”

At the beginning of the fourth section of Nieh’s novel, Peach is living in an abandoned water tower in spring of 1970:
We just wanted to live off the land naturally; we weren’t threatening anybody. But they discovered that the dilapidated water tower was unfit for habitation. There were no sanitary facilities. The wood was rotten, and there was the danger that it would collapse at any time. Reporters came to interview us and take photos. We became newspaper headlines. They called us “the people of the water tower.”
The water tower here is one of the many figures of enclosure and confinement in the novel, and the media spectacle that ensues is an extension of the voyeuristic fascination with which the INS office doggedly pursues details of Mulberry/Peach’s past throughout the novel.

At the same time, this water-tower media spectacle in the novel coincidentally anticipates a very similar scene in the current movie recent teen movie Aquamarine (Elizabeth Allen, dir.), wherein the eponymous protagonist—a mermaid who has come ashore in order to find love and thereby sidestep the marriage which her father has arranged for her—befriend two young teenage girls, who help sequester her in an isolated water tower every night (her legs invariably revert back into a fish tail every day at dusk). However, a slightly older queen-bee whose father happens to be a reporter accidentally stumbles upon Aquamarine’s secret, and (in a fit of vengeful jealously) arranges to have a live media circus waiting for her when it is time for her to emerge from the water tower one morning.

Both Mulberry and Peach and Aquamarine revolve around a tension between two different feminine personas. Whereas Mulberry and Peach are actually (like Cox and Wonkette) the same person, in Aquamarine the play is on three characters who embody different facets of what is arguably the same subjectivity. That is to say, the mature Aquamarine’s two teenage companions both have crushes on the same local lifeguard, but are too young to act on those desires. The sudden appearance of the confident and fearless Aquamarine, therefore, functions as a projection of the girls’ desires, functioning as a liberated “girl gone [modestly] wild” whom they are not yet able to be (though they do diligently do everything they can to help Aquamarine in her quest to seduce the lifeguard.

Another film which hews even more closely to the schizophrenic model of Mulberry and Peach is Clara Law’s 1989 Farewell China, about a conservative and traditional Chinese woman (Maggie Cheung) who is determined to come to the US at all costs. When she finally does secure a visa, she leaves her husband (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and young child behind in China as she travels alone to New York to seek a new life. Life in New York turns out to be brutish and grueling, and in attempting her character apparently fractures into two starkly antithetical personalities. The first is the conservative and devoted wife and mother who appears at the beginning of the film, while the second is a vicious parasite presents herself as a wealthy New York sociality while at the same time conning other Chinese immigrants into giving her their money (ostensibly in order to help them send it back to their families in China).

Farewell China’s violent conclusion—in which Tony Leung’s character finally catches up with his estranged wife in the streets of New York, only to have her mistake him for a sexual predator and stab him to death—is preceded by a brief and enigmatic scene of an elderly Chinese women calmly walking down the street with a pet turtle on a leash. We might make sense of this peculiar scene by reading it in dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s almost identical description, in his essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," of nineteenth century Paris socialites walking their turtles down the Champs d'Ellyses: "It was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk ... The [dandy] liked to have the turtles set the pace for him. If he had his way, progress would be obliged to accommodate itself to this pace." Benjamin's essay is currently best-known for its development of his notion of the “flaneur”—a figure is presented as being able to move freely through a modern urban space. More recently, the gendered implications of Benjamin's model have similarly come under critique, as it has been observed that the flaneur is typically coded as a masculine.

From Benjamin's notion of the nineteenth century male flaneur moving freely through the modern city, to Nieh Hua-ling's and Clara Law's use of the theme of split personality to explore the psychological difficulties inherent in women's transnational movement (even Aquamarine is presented as an immigrant struggling with a sense of culture shock), an ideal of unfettered transnational movement (of what Aihwa Ong calls “flexible citizenship) is implicitly premised on a systematic blindness to the gendered asymmetry which underlies, and undermines, that ideal.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Un Petit Mort

In a current commercial for A1 steak sauce, a prisoner on death row about to dig into a final meal consisting of a steak and said steak sauce when a guard happens to pull off a patch covering the prisoner’s name tag…and discovers that he is actually an imposter, a different prisoner altogether. The prisoner is then unceremoniously hauled away, gazing regretfully at the uneaten meal.

The commercial is amusing, and disturbing. It is unclear, for instance, whether the prisoner was planning to reveal his true identity following the meal, or whether he was planning to go through with the actual execution simply on account of being sick of standard prison food. Was this supposed to be an isolated incident, or are we to imagine Mr. Moeller pulling the same scam over and over each time one of his colleagues is scheduled to die?

This image of a prisoner stepping to the brink of death simply for the culinary pleasure of a fine meal is disconcerting, in part because it hews so close to reality. A1 steak sauce, for instance, is apparently a common choice of actual prisoners awaiting execution (e.g., John Glenn Roe on Feb. 3, 2003: T-bone steak, A-1 Steak Sauce, onion rings, macaroni and cheese, butter-pecan ice cream and root beer; John Hicks on Nov. 29, 2005: two medium rib eye steaks, a baked potato, a chef salad, garlic bread, apple pie a la mode, potato chips, A-1 Steak Sauce and a Pepsi; and John B Nixon, Sr on Dec. 14, 2005: T-bone steak (well done) with salt and A-1 steak sauce, asparagus spears (buttered and salted), baked potato with salt, pepper and sour crème, peach pie, vanilla ice cream and sweet tea….the meticulous recording of these menus is curious practice in its own right). Furthermore, the name of the prisoner in the commercial (Moeller) evokes the figure of Donald Moeller, currently on death row in South Dakota for the rape and murder of a nine year old girl (prompting outrage on the part of some of locals).

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the way in which the A1 commercial taps into the cultural theme which we might describe that of a “petit mort”—a fantasy of jouissance during a brief moment of suspended time. In Borges’ story “The Secret Miracle,” for instance, Jaromir Hladík is a Jewish dramatist and scholar who is to be executed by the Germans in 1943. In a Matrix-like moment at the precise instant in which he is about to be executed, with a drop of rain water suspended half-way down his cheek, the story notes dryly that, “the physical universe came to a halt.” Hladík eventually realizes that God has granted him a full year of borrowed time (while the rest of the physical universe remains immobilized) in order to complete his magnum opus, before the rifle bullets recommence their inexorable trajectory toward his heart.

This notion of a suspended existence immediately preceding death is, of course, not merely the purview of fiction. There are currently more than 3000 prisoners on death row in the US, and on average they spend more than a decade on death row. To date, Project Innocence has helped to exonerate 175 death row prisoners prior to their executions (including Clarence David Hall, who died 12 days after being released, having spent the previous 16 in prison for a crime he did not commit). Even for those who are unquestionably guilty, the sheer length of time spent on death row raises potential questions of rehabilitation and repentance. Beyond the sheer statistics, a number of recent cases have helped underscore these issues, from Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams (who became a respected author, artist, and activist during the two and a half decades he spent in prison before ultimately being executed in December 2006); to Clarence Ray Allen (who was executed in January at the age of 76 (diabetic, legally blind, and in a wheelchair), after having spent more than a quarter of a century on death row; and even to Slobodan Milošević (who died of a heart attack on March 11th as his nearly five-year long trial for genocide was on the verge of wrapping up).

The most horrifying aspect of capital punishment is perhaps not the actual act of execution (itself certainly horrifying enough in its own right, particularly given recent debates over the efficacy of the cocktail of injections which is commonly used) but rather the extended period of suspended temporality which precedes it. The question of the State’s control over this period of suspended temporality is illustrated dramatically in the case of Clarence Allen. Not only was Allen virtually incapacitated by old age by the time he was scheduled to die, but furthermore, as the Sacramento Bee reported, prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon said that if Allen were to have a medical problem before his execution he would be unceremoniously revived (despite his having signed a “do not resuscitate” order following a heart attack last year): “Because we do believe in the sanctity of human life, we will do whatever is necessary.”

At issue here is not merely the State’s power to kill, but equally importantly its power over death, its attempt to police the boundary between life and death. As Baudrillard argues in a slightly different context in Symbolic Exchange and Death, “Power is possible only if death is no longer free, only if the dead are put under surveillance, in anticipation of the future confinement of life in its entirety…. Power is established on death’s borders.” Baudrillard goes on to argue that death functions as a general equivalent, and as such constitutes a constant threat to the life as value:
Our whole culture is just one huge effort to dissociate life and death, to ward off the ambivalence of death in the interests of life as value, and time as the general equivalent….. [A]s soon as the ambivalence of life and death and the symbolic reversibility of death comes to an end, we also enter the field of the equivalent production of death. So life-become-value is constantly perverted by the equivalent death. Death, at the same instant, becomes the object of a perverse desire.
Death, then, is not simply the antithesis of life, but rather it becomes the object of a peverse desire in its own right precisely as a function of society’s attempt to regulate and circumscribe it. It is this twin logic of avoidance and desire, therefore, that underlies the A1 commercial: death is the purview of the State, which polices the boundary between life and death to reassert its own power. At the same time, however, this liminal zone at the border of death becomes an object of libidinal investment in its own right, a literal “petit mort,” a point of intersection of consumption, sexuality, and mortality. As Bataille argues in Eroticism,
[W]e can lo longer differentiate between sexuality and death [, which] are simply the culminating points of the festival nature celebrates, with the inexhaustible multitude of living being, both of them signifying the boundless wastage of nature’s resources as opposed to the urge to live on characteristic of every living creature.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A House Divided

Who has the authority to invite a stranger into one’s home? What if there are co-occupants who are at odds on whether on not to invite the stranger in?

These are the questions at the heart of the recent Supreme Court decision, Georgia v Randolph. The case revolves around questions of hospitality and exclusion, and appropriately enough comes at a time that the Court is itself in the process of welcoming and integrating two new members (neither of whom, needless to say, did the Court play any role in inviting in the first place). As the Times recently observed, Georgia v Randolph was one of the first decisions in which a certain testiness could be detected beneath the “surface placidity and collegiality of the young Roberts court.”

The case concerns the question of whether evidence is admissible in court if it has been seized by police over the objections of one or more co-occupants of a residence (in this case, the cocaine-using husband has objected to his battered wife’s invitation that the police search the premises). The 5-3 majority opinion written by Souter appeals to a “customary expectation of courtesy or deference” in its conclusion that a guest would not reasonably be expected to accept an invitation of entry over the manifest objection of another of the inhabitants of the residence:
To begin with, it is fair to say that a caller standing at the door of shared premises would have no confidence that one occupant’s invitation was a sufficiently good reason to enter when a fellow tenant stood there saying, “stay out.” Without some very good reason, no sensible person would go inside under those conditions.
In his minority dissent (his first authored dissent on the Court), meanwhile, Roberts suggests that the possibility of having one’s sovereignty over a residence overruled is a necessary consequence of sharing one’s residence with another, and sketches several scenarios in which he believes it would be perfectly appropriate to enter someone’s home over the objections of one or more of the inhabitants:
The fact is that a wide variety of differing social situations can readily be imagined, giving rise to quite different social expectations. A relative or good friend of one of two feuding roommates might well enter the apartment over the objection of the other roommate. The reason the invitee appeared at the door also affects expectations: A guest who came to celebrate an occupant’s birthday, or one who had traveled some distance for a particular reason, might not readily turn away simply because of a roommate’s objection….
Roberts then concludes, however, that intuition about how potential guests might choose to reconcile these sorts of competing injunctions is, ultimately, “not a promising foundation on which to ground a constitutional rule,” and instead sides with the plaintiffs that permission from at least occupant should be sufficient.

Issues of “constitutional rule” aside, these questions of fractured sovereignty illustrate one of the central paradoxes at the heart of the concept of hospitality itself. As Derrida has argued in Of Hospitality, a practical notion of hospitality is necessarily caught bound up in an irreducible “dilemma between, on the one hand, unconditional hospitality that dispenses with law, duty, or even politics, and, on the other, hospitality circumscribed by law and duty.” In other words, hospitality is premised on the possibility of mastery of one’s own domain—and that very mastery is itself predicated on the existence of a system of laws, rules, and processes of exclusions.

Beyond the specific Fourth Amendment questions considered in the Georgia decision, these debates over the nature of hospitality have considerable relevance to a cluster of key hot-button issues with which the Court (and the nation) is currently grappling: namely, those of immigration, border control, and naturalization. Who has the authority to invite a stranger/foreigner into our country? What if there are co-occupants who are at odds on whether on not to invite the stranger/foreigner in?

The predicament for millions of undocumented immigrants lies precisely in this double-bind of contradictory messages from two different “hosts.” On the one hand, many areas of the US economy are predicated on the availability of cheap, immigrant labor. On the other hand, xenophobic discourses and immigration policies essentially function as a curmudgeonly roommate standing at the door saying, “stay out.”

Faced with these contradictory messages, many potential immigrants undoubtedly will accordingly heed a Souterian logic and decide to “stay out.” Others (currently more than 12 million of them, and counting), many of whom have indeed “traveled some distance for a particular reason,” are not quite so ready to “turn away simply because of a roommate’s objection.” What is more, once invited in, these immigrants (either individually or collectively) are then (like the proverbial vampire) very difficult to “un-invite” (indeed, on the very same day the Georgia v Randolph decision was released, the Court heard oral arguments for the case of Fernandez-Vargas v Gonzales, which concerns the question of repeated deportations of undocumented immigrants who continue to reenter the country).

But, one must ask, is it fair here to compare undocumented immigrants to vampires? True, vampires have long been associated with ethnic or religious minorities, functioning as Dragan Kujundzic has observed, as figures “of the reaction of society against itself, or the 'other' and itself… Vampires stand as a negative, like a film, that a society doesn't want to recognize.” On the other hand, Hardt and Negri follow Marx in associating the figure of the vampire, not with the abject Other, but rather with the disembodied cannibalizing force of empire itself: “Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off the vitality of the multitude—as Marx would say, a vampire regime of accumulated dead labor that survives only by sucking off the blood of the living.”

This circular, recursive vampirism (in which both the undocumented immigrant and the American empire are perceived as parasitically feeding on each other), in turn, returns us to one of Derrida’s conclusions about the nature of hospitality. Following his reading of Oedipus at Colonus, Derrida concludes that
it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage—and who really always has been. And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites the one who invites, the master of the host. The guest becomes the host’s host. The guest (hôte) becomes the host (hôte) of the host (hôte).
Therefore, even as the presumptive unity of the “host” is fractured (with competing co-occupants giving guests contradictory messages), the presumptive gap between host and guest is itself fractured (insofar as both guests and hosts contribute equally to the structural possibility of the invitation itself).

More specifically, even as the GOP is currently deeply split on the question of immigration, and as potential low-wage immigrants receive starkly contradictory messages about whether or not they are welcome, it is essential to realize that both sides (both hosts and guests/strangers) are ineluctable elements in this elaborate dance of hospitality and rejection.