Friday, July 18, 2014

Entitled to the Internal Tangle: how working through want makes us human

Part I: Intentional Background

For the last five days I've been reading Anne Leckie's fantastic Ancillary Justice. It's been blowing my mind in all types of lovely philosophical and fictional ways. Seriously that book is an intellectual back-bending inversion and we need that kind of upending fiction. Read it!

But this afternoon it brushed against a nerve whose sensations I've been trying to work through for the past month or so:

For a month I've been trying to write a post that sums up my feelings about desire/thought/intent and how they don't matter or at the very least how they are ancillary to the real world action and behaviors we choose to take.

In January 2010 Kinsey Hope made a satirical post about intent being "magic". The follwoing year Melissa McEwan at Shakesville put up the first post in a two part series about how seeing intent as magic can cause communication to be harmful. (I'm wildly paraphrasing here). Since then so many radical corners of the internet has been touched by the powerful words implied in these posts:
Intent is not magic.
It does not absolve the doer of damage and it does absolutely nothing to resolve, heal, or otherwise take accountability for the effects of the resulting harm. Reconciliation can never start from "I didn't mean it". Because as an adult human person you are expected to do the hard, but deeply human work of navigating how to respect your own desire/wants/thoughts while maintaining respect for others.

Now it's important for me to give this (poorly sourced) background and my take on it because it's crucial to what I am trying to draw out here. The reason intent is not magic, is because it has little to no direct power over how we act and communicate. For the most part, our conscious (not necessarily logical/sensible!) minds determine how we act and interact. The effects of intent are indirect at best.

Intent isn't magic, and in many contexts straight up doesn't matter. As Leckie's extremely utilitarian  protagonist Berq says "Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing."

Part II: The tangle that makes us human

All actions have consequences. As humans in community with other humans; as socially sophisticated animals, it's our evolutionary imperative to anticipate and strategically reduce the harmful consequences of our own actions.

Every moment of our waking lives (and probably a good portion of dreams), we experience a complex tangle of thoughts, desires, wants, and wishes. We all must weed through this tangle to figure out how to act.

Let me give you an examples of my own navigation of this process:

For me a huge part of being genderfuild is engaging in a process of choosing how to follow up on my many and seemingly conflicting desires to express myself. I consistently have to chose from a tangle of erratic desires. These desires often buck lessons I learned about gender, behavior, and societal expectations. And sometimes I come to the conclusion that things I thought were in conflict are in fact not.

But thing is, the internal process that brings me to act and express, it belongs to me. It is part of what makes me me. In fact, I'm willing to take it even further than that. It's part of what makes me human. Take this process away from me and I am less human. Take this process away from anyone and they are dehumanized.

The processes that we go through, whether conscious or unconscious, swift or slow, to determine which of our wants we are going to actualize and how is a process that belongs to each us individually. Because the simple fact is (barring any drastic nuero-tech advances) nobody else can be in your head deciding which of your thoughts mean action, and which mean nothing.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Appropriation Is Erasure


Alright, let's get this out of the way.  I am a white person about to write about race. And I am scared to do it. 

You're more than welcome to skip this preface and proceed onto what this post is really about. Trust me, my clumsy thoughts on racism and appropriation and art are much more interesting than my fears. But I must speak them.

I have been afraid of blogging about race in the past. I still am. The only other times I have written about race I've either used a disclaimer, or not addressed it directly while making note of implications I was skipping. The fear I experience is complex (like most human emotions) but mostly boils down to three basic thrusts. 

  1. I don't want to further enforce oppressive structures, and/or harm those whose experiences/cultures I'm speaking about. 
  2.  I am afraid of bumping up against the spots in my world view that've been made blind by my privilege. I am afraid to find in myself those deeply lodged flecks of violence and oppression I've yet to eradicate.
  3. I am afraid to have this process laid bare in public, because I ultimately want to be thought of as a "good guy". But giving up being the "good guy" is part of challenging power structures that put me and people who look/act like me in power (and gives us the freedom to call ourselves "good guys" and be believed). So here goes.

Before you read any of the following please at least skim  DEFINITELY READ ALL OF Nicholas Powers's Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit. In fact, if you only have time/energy to read one take on this topic make it his not mine.

I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.

Among the many thoughts and feelings I had after reading this, this is proof positive for me that more comprehensive interdisciplinary arts education is necessary. I want a clear connections drawn between art and social justice. There is such a fucking failure in our schools and at large to connect past atrocities and suffering to current occurrences and artistic trends.

Unfortunately Powers's experience is only a glaring example of how the centering of white folk's contexts for experiencing erases the culture and history of others. I mean look at how "exotic" art (whether it be foreign, "urban", Native American, or otherwise "tribal"/"primitive") is presented in film/tv. They're used as props or background and all too often end up as the butt of some throwaway joke. Those jokes as well as those photos people were taking of the Kara Walker exhibit are as naked a portrait of appropriation as I can imagine.

The very reason that experiencing art itself can be transformative at all this that it asks us to consider and in theory inhabit contexts other than our own. But so many white and otherwise privileged people have been insulated from this process. So much so that when they encounter anything that seems outside of their experience/history they assume that it must only exist for their entertainment. The viscous cycle of erasure and appropriation is fed by this consistent failure to connect with the cultural contexts of those either deemed "other" or simply not spoken about at all.

In one of the presentations at my residency last month someone said "people who have suffered are smarter". That phrase clicked with me then but I think only now am I understanding why. People who suffer and are made "other",  are forced to, and for their own survival, become adept at understanding contexts and experiences other than their own. This was the "smart"ness referred to.*

The mechanism of appropriation laid bare at the Kara Walker exhibit, is the process of reducing the art of "the other" to the frivolous, exotic, and/or racy/trendy (and usually profiting from that redefinition). And I am ashamed. But more important I'm livid.

Livid that the insular straight-up dumb assumption, that "if [x piece of art/culture] is not about me/my experience then it must not be that important (to anyone)." is part of my culture as an american and as a white person. The comfort of that privilege is NOT making us smarter, or better people. It only makes us more comfortable (at the expense, erasure, and discomfort of others).

*After drafting this I was informed that this context switching "smartness" is known as "outsider-within" perspective in feminist stand point theory. Source