Categories
Criticism

Thomas Sowell’s Deregulated Brain

During the height of the BLM protests last summer, there was a focus on listening to black voices, the likes of Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and so on. But some people countered this, querying why people didn’t listen to or read black conservatives such as Candace Owens (which…y’know…c’mon). But one name came up a few times and I’ve seen it cited in a few different corners of the internet. Thomas Sowell. Having looked through two of his books, The Thomas Sowell Reader and Controversial Essays, I have found some inane and at times startling comments. Here I will be dissecting some arguments put forward in Controversial Essays as I found both the title and the enclosed essays more striking.

            In ‘Minimum Journalism’, Sowell complains about a piece published by the Wall Street Journal on minimum wage workers. The Journal’s focus on middle-aged women irks Sowell as ‘just over half the people earning the minimum wage are from 16 to 24 years of age. Just over half of the minimum wage earners are working part-time.’ He considers this focus on middle-aged women as being ‘clever propaganda’, arguing the politically correct line is that people can’t afford to raise families on these wages. Although Sowell provides more perspective to this conversation on minimum wage, I think we can go a step further. As a study by the Public Policy Institute says, two thirds of minimum wage workers are neither spouses nor single parents within the family unit, although that is not to say that their income contribution is not necessary to the family wellbeing. The importance of the minimum wage worker cannot be undersold, when looking at the remaining one third of workers who are spouses or parents, they are said to bring home more than half of the family’s earnings. The study concludes that although not all minimum wage workers are poor, only one in four are, 60% of wage earners in poor families would benefit from a dollar increase in the minimum wage. This study and Sowell’s article are contemporaneous, coming from 2001. But there is still more to discuss. Sowell argues most of the younger workers ‘have better sense than to have children that they cannot feed and house.’ What has changed in the coming years? A study in 2013 highlights that only 30% of fast food workers are teenagers, 30% are aged 20-24, and the last 40% are 25 and older. As the study puts it ‘many teenagers do work in fastfood, but the majority of fast-food workers are not teenagers.’ 70% of fast-food workers fall in the range of the $7.25 federal minimum wage and the $10.10 wage proposed in legislation. Turning back to the question of families, 26.6% of workers aged 16-19 have a child whilst 36.4% of those aged 20 and over had a child. There is also a question of societal stigma. I suggest that the job role associated with minimum wage work particularly fast-food is one that dehumanises the worker in tandem with their low pay. Essentially, society knows these workers are poorly paid and more often or not require the income, and has no problem treating them badly. Furthermore, Sowell contends that minimum wage laws ‘increase unemployment among the least skilled, least experienced, and minority workers.’ A Vox article from 2019 makes the point that Democrat-run cities and states that have increased the minimum wage above the federal minimum ($7.25) have not seen a drop in unemployment. In a meta-analysis of 37 studies on minimum wages from 2001-2016, the authors found that the effect on employment levels was minimal. Their reasoning for this is that over the last 15 years, teenagers have become less important to the functioning of the labour market but simultaneously in the last 25 years the service industry has become increasingly important to the labour market. Overall, it shouldn’t be discounted that in 2001 and in the following years, minimum wage workers have various family situations, and a minimum wage increase would be beneficial for those on low pay.

            Next, Sowell delves into academic performance and race in ‘Losing the Race.’ Here, he refers solely to the book ‘Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America’ by John McWhorter to contend that overall, the gap in academic performance between black and white youth comes from a cultural context rather than one of systemic racism. Unfortunately, I cannot get hold of a copy of this book but given it is the only source Sowell discusses in this piece I hope he wouldn’t mind if I use multiple other sources more readily available. Sowell says of McWhorter ‘of the things he wants done is putting an end to excuses and to the whole victimhood mentality which spawns excuses.’ This is an interesting claim, and one that seems to disregard the very real information about race and education. McWhorter’s justification for the claim that black youth are culturally lazy is that Asian-American students outperform them even coming from similar economic backgrounds. First, I would contextualise this with an Economic Policy Institute study that states that ‘black and Hispanic students—even if they are not poor—are much more likely than white or Asian students to be in high-poverty schools.’ Additionally, attending a high-poverty school for any student regardless of race had a negative effect on reading and mathematic achievements, with the biggest negative influence being for Asian students, even if they are working hard, they are not achieving as well as Asian students in low-poverty schools. Although supposedly McWhorter recognises the historical background of ‘slavery, discrimination and poverty’, he discards these factors when looking at black youth from middle class backgrounds who still fail in school. Again, even if these youth are not poor, they end up attending underfunded schools which would account for their poor academic performance. It is also incredibly noteworthy that outside of high school, systemic racism prevents black people from getting equal wages or opportunities as white people even at the same education level. In the Urban Institute’s report ‘Examining the Racial and Gender Wealth Gap in America’, they clearly show that when looking at full-time, full-year workers aged 25 to 64, that even those black people who have high school diplomas or college degrees are both underpaid and have higher unemployment levels than their white cohorts. Interestingly, white people with no high school diplomas on average have better wages than black people who have finished high school. I wonder how Sowell or McWhorter would explain this discrepancy? Additionally, the discriminatory hiring practices of the past and present have particularly hurt black women as they suffer both from racial and gender prejudice. At every education level, black women are paid lower than white men, black men, and white women. Overall, I find the contention that culture somehow is the primary reason black people underachieve isn’t convincing when we look at the data.

            In ‘Reparations for Slavery?’, Sowell ridicules the notion of reparations as well as any notion of America apologising for slavery. I will argue that these two concepts should be treated singularly, that in a sense reparation would be the correct response to slavery and its continuing impact on America as well as an apology to the people who it has hurt. Sowell argues ‘during the era of slavery, most white people owned no slaves. Are their descendants supposed to pay for the descendants of those who did?’ He is correct here that most white people didn’t own slaves, but the problem is, they and their ancestors have benefitted from systemic racism against black people. The Homestead Act starting in 1868 granted acres of free land to mostly white families whilst leaving black people in the lurch. As Keri Leigh Merritt puts it in an article, ‘to receive 160 acres of government land, claimants had to complete a three-part process: first, file an application. Second, improve the land for five years. Third, file for the deed of ownership.’ Freshly emancipated slaves struggled with the bureaucracy of obtaining land from the government and had little to no money for necessary travel or the filing fees. As well as this much of the land was unfarmable, meaning even if black people could obtain it, they would struggle to work it for the mandatory five years. Across the several decades of the various land acts, over 1.6 million native and immigrant white families were granted land. By comparison, the number of black claimants who were granted land was about six thousand. Merritt concludes ‘the number of adult descendants of the original Homestead Act recipients living in the year 2000 was estimated to be around 46 million people, about a quarter of the US adult population. If that many white Americans can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership to a single entitlement programme, then the perpetuation of black poverty must also be linked to national policy.’ Policy after policy in the last 200 years reveals discrimination against black people. Sowell deploys an interesting tactic by asking whether ‘does anyone seriously suggest that blacks in America today would be better off if they were in Africa? If not, then what is the compensation for?’ But of course, by 1914 90% of Africa was colonised. Spain, Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, and Belgium effectively dominated an entire continent and bled it dry of resources for their own benefit. If slavery and colonisation had not occurred, who is to say what today’s Africa might look like? Sowell tries to discount slavery in America as of course it has occurred all over the world throughout history. The problem here is that America from its foundation, has been linked to slavery and continues to feel the effect of its impact in the laws following its abolition.

            Sowell argues in ‘Blacks and Bootstraps’ that most ‘blacks did lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps—before their political rescuers arrived on the scene with civil rights legislation in the 1960s or affirmative action policies in the 1970s.’ Sowell cites the statistic that in 1940 87% of black families lived below the poverty line but this fell to 47% by 1960 without ‘any major federal legislation on civil rights and before the rise and expansion of the welfare state under the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson.’ So, the argument here is that black people progressed economically without major government programmes or assistance. It’s hard to tell what Sowell suggests allowed black people in this particular period of 1940-60 to escape poverty. As Sowell pointed out, 87% of black families were below the poverty line in 1940, but it shouldn’t be discounted that New Deal programmes like the Works Progress Administration helped employ many black people. About 425,000 black people worked under the WPA, a higher percentage than in the overall labour force. The jobs under the WPA allowed black workers better wages and access to more skilled roles than were previously available to them. Of course, it should also be noted that racism still undermined New Deal policy; federal housing programmes benefited many white Americans but strengthened segregation of the black population, often leaving them in unsafe living conditions. The discriminatory housing policies no doubt held black families back but efforts like the WPA helped normalise desegregated workforces and offered better working conditions. But again, poverty didn’t really decline until the period between 1940 and 1960. So, did the free market automatically lift everyone out of poverty in this period? Not exactly. Before and during World War Two, the government managed to convince 85 million Americans (the population was 132 million in 1940) to buy bonds worth over $180 million. Once the war was over and people were able to cash in on these bonds, they had more purchasing power and consumption increased. Not only this but growth during the war was down to government spending which increased the GDP whilst consumption was kept fairly level. As the Institute for Economics & Peace states though, America was already experiencing post-Depression growth prior to the war, and the increased spending and growth during the war acted as a bubble, one which reverted to pre-war baseline growth. It might also be worth noting that federal programmes during the war allowed many black people the chance to train in specific trade skills at historically black colleges and universities. The National WWII Museum highlights this new focus on education: ‘sixty-five black colleges participated in federal programs such as the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training (ESMWT) program. Twelve of those institutions had direct contracts with the federal government and offered a total of 74 courses in physics, mathematics, management, engineering, and chemistry.’ These colleges and universities were a mix of public and private institutions and reflects the larger overall cause of reduction in black poverty, it was not some mythic overcoming of systemically ingrained racism but a mixture of private enterprise and extensive public spending.

            In ‘Global Hot Air’, Sowell gets testy about a National Academy of Sciences report that isn’t specifically written by scientists and somehow this means global warming isn’t occurring. Sowell builds on his scepticism by pointing to the ‘global cooling’ and ‘new ice age’ hysteria of the 1970s which clearly didn’t come to pass and therefore global warming has been debunked as the same hysteria. In an American Meteorological Society paper, the authors highlight that much of the concern around global cooling was manufactured by media figures misreading scientific literature selectively. The paper notes that as far back as 1957 there were scientists working in Hawaii and Antarctica jointly concluding that their data meant ‘that atmospheric carbon dioxide was rising as a result of fossil fuel burning.’ Much of the scientific literature of the 1970s trended towards believing in global warming over cooling. This point of hysteria about cooling therefore doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Sowell then refers to two scientists, S. Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen who are extremely sceptical of climate change.  Both men have worked for and on behalf of right wing think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute, which have received funding from the oil and gas company ExxonMobil. S. Fred Singer once made the claim on his website ‘Science and Environmental Policy Project’ that ‘555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich have been growing since 1980’, a claim reproduced in New Scientist Magazine by sceptic David Bellamy. When George Monbiot checked with the World Glacial Monitoring Service, they stated that this claim originating from Singer was ‘“complete bullshit.”’ Monbiot continues, ‘he had cited data that was simply false, he had failed to provide references, he had completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature. The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world’s glaciers are retreating.’ Singer hardly seems convincing. On the other hand, you have Lindzer. In a blog for the Cato Institute, Lindzer wrote ‘climate alarm belongs to a class of issues characterized by a claim for which there is no evidence, that nonetheless appeals strongly to one of more interests of prejudices. Once the issue is adopted, evidence becomes irrelevant. Instead, the believer sees what he believes.’ If you were to change the word ‘alarm’ to ‘denialism’ it works significantly better. Grifters like Singer and Lindzer always operate on either cherry-picked evidence or in Singer’s case, they make it up. Sowell does try to make the case the NAS report doesn’t wholly explain ‘that the timing of temperature increases does not coincide with the timing of increases in greenhouse gasses.’ This may cause some doubt but in a paper to Environmental Research Letters, Ricke and Caldeira write that using carbon-cycle and physical-climate model intercomparisons, they estimate that there is a delay between emissions and maximum warming of about a decade. Emissions are not immediate in their effect. Overall, Sowell relies on two very biased individuals which are heavily undermined by the overwhelming consensus amongst scientists that not only is climate change and global warming a problem, but it is also one we are causing. Perhaps of interest to Sowell, is that as NASA points out, 10 of the warmest years in the 141-year record occurred since 2005.

            In ‘Gay Marriage’, Sowell makes some familiar arguments and some I haven’t heard in relation to gay marriage, maybe I’m just so lucky. First, he starts off by complaining that ‘homosexuals were on their strongest ground when they argued that what happens between consenting adults is nobody else’s business. Now they want to make it everybody’s business by requiring others to acquiesce in their unions and treat them as they would other unions, both in law and in social practice.’ Now, to be fair, I think gay people wanted their marriage to be everybody’s business in the same way that straight people make marriage everyone else’s business already. Sowell argues that straight couples can reproduce which is of course important, but ‘this consideration obviously does not apply to homosexual unions’ is downright wrong. In data provided by the Williams Institute, between 2014 and 2016 16.2% of all gay couples were raising children, with higher rates of childrearing amongst married gay couples. Not only this but 68% of gay couples were raising biological children through means like surrogacy and in vitro fertilization. Although the majority of gay couples were raising biological children, they were still more likely (21.4%) to adopt than straight couples (3%) or foster (2.9% to 0.4%). Sowell argues that as men and women are biologically different, the issue of responsibility for the child is different and the couple must be made jointly responsible by law. In one paper Manning, Fettro, and Lamidi find that children living in gay households fare just as well as children in straight households accounting for factors like: ‘academic performance, cognitive development, social development, psychological health, early sexual activity, and substance abuse.’ So gay couples marrying and raising children is as equally good for society as when straight people do it. Sowell also contends that marriage between straight couples is beneficial in terms of divorce settlements for potentially disadvantaged women, as if gay people do not face any disadvantages in society that could be alleviated by legal marriage status. Sowell says, ‘when they are simply “consenting adults,” they can consent on whatever terms they choose to work out between themselves. It is nobody else’s business and should not be the law’s business.’ Unfortunately, whether Sowell likes it or not, it is already the law’s business. As highlighted in a Vox article, if gay couples can marry, they can file taxes jointly, and in cases where only one person is working this can lower taxes. If a husband or wife dies, the surviving spouse can inherit the estate without being subject to estate or gift tax. Married couples can procure family rates for health insurance plans. On the matter of ‘nobody else’s business’ as Sowell puts it, if a gay couple are married the government cannot force them to disclose information privately discussed during a marriage and couples may also have visiting rights to places like prisons and hospitals where access is restricted to only immediate family. Sowell concludes ‘the issue of gay marriage is just one of many examples of the victim’s ploy, which says: “I am a victim. Therefore, if you do not give in to my demands and let me walk over you like a doormat, it shows that you are a hate-filled, evil person.”’ I think Sowell is being overly sensitive here, as I am unaware of how equal marriage rights implies gay people walking all over straight people. As the literature shows, there are a great many benefits to allowing gay people to marry. No matter how hard he tries to intellectualise it, Sowell comes off as a crotchety old man who doesn’t understand the struggles of gay people. Also, as of 2015 gay marriage has been legalised in America nationwide, and the sky did not in fact fall on the country nor did the traditional unity of man and woman wholly collapse.

            This sample of Sowell’s large work doesn’t cover every topic, but I thought it provided enough of an exploration of fairly diverse topics. Overall, I find it odd Sowell has the acclaim and audience that he does. His ideas around race in particular seem regressive to me and are utilised by people wishing to undermine movements like BLM or others looking for racial justice. I am not saying all of Sowell’s ideas about economics must be inherently wrong or flawed, but when looking at his approach to topics of social justice, he seems to so often miss the mark and then appear smug about doing so.

Further Reading:

Public Policy Institute’s ‘Workers at the Bottom: An Update on America’s Minimum Wage Workers’: https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/econ/dd65_workers.pdf

Center for Economic and Policy Research’s ‘Slow Progress for Fast-Food Workers’: https://cepr.net/documents/publications/fast-food-workers-2013-08.pdf

‘Behind the Arches: How McDonald’s Fails to Protect Workers from Workplace Violence’: https://www.nelp.org/publication/behind-the-arches-how-mcdonalds-fails-to-protect-workers-from-workplace-violence/

Vox’s ‘A $15 federal minimum wage won’t cost Americans jobs, new study says’: https://www.vox.com/2019/7/2/20678821/15-federal-minimum-wage-increase-study

Meta-analysis: ‘15 Years of Research on U.S. Employment and the Minimum Wage’:

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2705499##

Economic Policy Institute’s ‘Five key trends in U.S. student performance’: https://www.epi.org/publication/five-key-trends-in-u-s-student-performance-progress-by-blacks-and-hispanics-the-takeoff-of-asians-the-stall-of-non-english-speakers-the-persistence-of-socioeconomic-gaps-and-the-damaging-effect/

Urban Institute’s ‘Examining the Racial and Gender Wealth Gap in America: https://people.umass.edu/fidan/Kurtulus_AffirmativeAction_AEJSubmission_06_26_2012_web.pdf

Keri Leigh Merritt’s ‘Land and the roots of African-American poverty’: https://aeon.co/ideas/land-and-the-roots-of-african-american-poverty

The Living New Deal’s ‘African Americans’:

Institute for Economics & Peace’s ‘Economic Consequences of War on the U.S Economy’: https://www.economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/The-Economic-Consequences-of-War-on-US-Economy_0.pdf

The National WWII Museum’s ‘The Double V Victory’: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/double-v-victory

American Meteorological Society’s ‘The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Consensus’:

http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/11584/1/2008bams2370%252E1.pdf

George Monbiot’s ‘Junk Science’:

https://archive.is/UUQY

Ricke and Caldeira’s ‘Maximum warming occurs about one decade after a carbon dioxide emission’:

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/9/12/124002#erl505119s4

NASA’s ‘Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming’: https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

Williams Institute’s ‘How Many Same-Sex Couples in the US are Raising Children?’:

https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/same-sex-parents-us/

Manning, Fettro, and Lamidi’s ‘Child Well-Being in Same-Sex Parent Families: Review of Research Prepared for American Sociological Association Amicus Brief’:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4091994/

Vox’s ‘Same-sex marriage in the US, explained’:

https://www.vox.com/2015/6/26/18093652/same-sex-marriage

Categories
Criticism

Douglas Murray and Gender Illiteracy: Conservatives Don’t Like Science

I’ve spent a small amount of time on the conservative side of YouTube and have encountered interviews with Douglas Murray where he speaks on various topics but the one that stands out to me is his views on transgender issues. Murray comes off in some of the interviews as smarmy and makes some generally uninteresting if not unfounded statements around trans people that I wanted to explore further. These ideas he espouses stem from his 2019 book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. It would therefore be unfair to take the snippets of comments he makes in interviews as the full articulation of his opinions, so I will instead be discussing the portion of his book which talks about trans people. Not to spoil this piece but overall, I find it fairly dissatisfying. If there’s one thing I find when I’m reading conservative voices, it’s that I’m jointly scared and excited that somehow my mind will be fundamentally changed by what I’m reading. This did not happen here. I think Murray put some time into this book (at least the chapter concerning trans people I’ve read), but it is woefully lacking in an engagement with the scientific and social literature on trans people, instead relying on individual case studies and anecdotes which at times raise appropriate concerns but overall muddy the wider picture of trans issues. My critique of this chapter is systematically and linearly picking through the text, so I apologise for the potential length of this piece.

            Murray begins with the case of Nathan Verhelst, a trans man from Belgium who was dissatisfied with his gender-affirming surgery and elected to die from Euthanasia four years later. Verhelst’s experience is undoubtedly sad for many reasons, he was treated poorly as a child by his parents, his surgical transition left him unhappy with his body, he chose to die over the possibility of detransitioning. What we have here is a very complicated case. Verhelst transitioned as an adult but surgery did not help how he felt. Could more have been done for him? It might have been possible to resume a life as a woman, there are those who regret transitioning and do revert back to their birth gender. For now I don’t want to talk too much about detransitioning as it will come up later but what I will say is it feels like Murray is treating Verhelst as the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the lived experiences of trans people.

            As a small point, when discussing the seemingly sudden arrival of trans people in the zeitgeist, Murray does refer back through history to various examples of gender-fluid and trans persons in the work of Ovid, the Indian Hijras, the Thai Kathoey, and the Samoan fa’afafine. It’s definitely important when discussing topics as wide ranging and deep as trans issues to look at the examples throughout history that give a place of recognition and cultural dignity to trans people. I like the effort made here, although later when Murray discusses non-binary people, we will see how these inclusions will bite him in the ass.

            Murray places a certain value of legitimacy on intersex people in comparison to trans people, owing to the inherently biological basis of intersex people’s identities as such. Murray states: ‘intersex people exist and should not be held responsible for a situation over which they have absolutely no control. A considerable amount of sympathy and understanding can be felt for anybody who is born intersex. What else should people feel about fellow human beings who have found themselves born with a set of cards which are – to say the least – sub-optimal? If anything in the world is undoubtedly a hardware issue then it is this.’ Murray laments the lack of attention paid to intersex people, inferring that trans people cast a large shadow over them. To make a slightly dumb sounding point, the acronym of LGBT is extended to LGBTQIA+, which includes intersex people. Intersex people are acknowledged in the queer community and trans people and intersex people fight in each other’s corners. This is not to say that intersex people and the LGBTQIA+ community do not have issues. Mauro Cabal, co-director of Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE), spoke about the actions trans people can take to help intersex people in a statement on Intersex Awareness Day 2016. Here, Cabal highlighted the problem of trans people conflating trans and intersex as categories. Whilst navigating the troubling medical patholigisation of intersex people, Cabal speaks of the coalition between trans and intersex people in this endeavour. I will quote him at length: ‘Recognizing and respecting intersectionalities differences while working on common goals is not only a good way of building emancipatory alliances: it’s the only way. When I started doing activism two decades ago I didn’t have the right words –for me, for my body, for my identity or for my sexuality. I just wanted to stop the hell I was going through. In the last 20 years I have seen many incredible changes produced by truly amazing activists from different movements. However, stories like mine –and many, many other stories of stigma and discrimination, ‘normalizing’ mutilation, rape, pain and silence- keep repeating, in different hospitals in my own country and, most likely, in your country too. We –you, me, all of us- deserve to see the first generation of intersex people fully enjoying their human rights. Let’s work together to make that happen in our lifetime.’ On top of this open discussion of coalition building between trans and intersex people, there is the 2013 Malta Declaration from 30(!) organisations where intersex activists wrote demands for the community at large. One of these demands was ‘to ensure that sex or gender classifications are amendable through a simple administrative procedure at the request of the individuals concerned. All adults and capable minors should be able to choose between female (F), male (M), non-binary or multiple options. In the future, as with race or religion, sex or gender should not be a category on birth certificates or identification documents for anybody.’ So it seems like there is definitely evidence to suggest intersex people are visible within society and can work alongside trans people to meet their goals and support one another.

            The next topic that caught my eye was Murray’s inclusion of autogynephilia. He presents it uncritically and seems to make apologies for the outrage it causes as a theory: ‘One of the most striking trends as the trans debate has picked up in recent years is that autogynephilia has come to be severely out of favour.’ He frames the understandable objections of trans people to the idea they are purely sexualised abnormalities as being unreasonable. Although Murray focuses mainly on Michael Bailey’s work within autogynephilia, it would make sense to consider Ray Blanchard’s originating research and why neither of these people should be taken seriously. Blanchard’s fundamental proposal that trans people exist due to a sexual drive e.g., a trans woman wearing a dress to get off, is unfounded and I could spend a lot of time dismantling the theory but there is one aspect in Julia Serano’s critique that got my attention. Blanchard did not control for cis people during his research. He apparently didn’t consider that cis people, particularly cis women, may feel a sense of arousal or sexual thrill from wearing certain clothing that they might find affirming i.e., fancy lingerie or heels. Data from C. Moser showed 65% of cis women surveyed agreed to prompts suggesting arousal from self-contemplation. Serano argues ‘it seems both illogical and needlessly stigmatising to single out trans women as supposedly being ‘autogynephiles’ for having similar erotic experiences (unless, of course, the label is primarily intended to pathologise trans women’s sexualities even when they are female-typical).’ Murray does not spend any time looking at data or studies which undeniably refute autogynephilia but instead clutches his pearls at the protests and hostility towards figures like Bailey who continue to push this reductive and illogical theory. ‘All this happened simply because Bailey had performed detailed research to get to the root of a crucial question and come back with an answer that had just become unpopular. Because for the best part of this century so far the idea that trans is in any way about sexual enjoyment has become an outrage and sexualizing slur.’ Bailey’s research and subsequent findings aren’t just unpopular, they’re incorrect. Murray neglects to consider why it is trans people want to avoid being heavily sexualised outside of the immediate undignified implication. Research from the 2015 U.S Transgender Survey suggests about half of trans people are sexually assaulted. The sexualisation of transgender people is an effort to dehumanise them, keeping them at an objectified distance whilst reaping the satisfaction of sexualising them.

            This next section might be my personal favourite. Murray describes the time Ben Shapiro went on a TV panel and was explicitly transphobic not only to Caitlyn Jenner (who wasn’t present) but also another panellist. The human embarrassment that is Ben Shapiro argued everyone was delusional for respecting Jenner’s identity. Despite being reprimanded, Shapiro continued to refer to Jenner using her old pronouns and claimed ‘How he feels on the inside is irrelevant to the question of his biological self.’ He bases this on the argument that all of Jenner’s body was still male. Unsurprisingly Shapiro does not understand the difference between sex and gender, a distinction many scientists and medical professionals have emphasised across studies. The interesting point is even if we consider Jenner’s body or ‘biological self’ to be wholly male, pronouns are a product of linguistics and social construction, they are not innate or objective. When Zoey Tur made the point that chromosomes didn’t necessarily convey someone was either male or female, Shapiro pushed back and referred to her as ‘Sir.’ Once again Murray clutches pearls at the idea that transgender people might get angry when they are mistreated or dehumanised. Tur threatened to put Shapiro in an ambulance if he misgendered her again. This whole episode is treated as something deeply concerning rather than an embarrassing display of bigotry by Shapiro.

            A small side note again, Murray’s general writing when referring to trans people seems pretty gross and misinformed. I say this because in sentences like ‘Rather than ‘unlocking’ the intersections of oppression, as the intersectionalists had claimed, trans simultaneously throws their own movement’s aims into the starkest possible relief and produces a veritable pile-up of logical contradictions’, the use of trans as a monolithic entity reads as clumsy and awkward, like someone who hasn’t spent time with trans people or studied trans issues.

            Murray talks about the conflict between certain feminist figures and trans people on the grounds of what constitutes a woman. He cites Julie Bindel as concluding an article with a ‘flourish’: ‘‘I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.’’ Ultimately, it’s hard to care what Bindel thinks, she has no scientific basis for this belief. After condemnation of a transphobic comment made by Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill launched a vicious attack against trans people using terms like ‘‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’ and ‘a bunch of bedwetters in bad wigs.’’ Murray notes that Burchill’s career had suffered from this article, implying that this was potentially wrong. How dare someone suffer the consequences of their actions, I say. Then cometh Germaine Greer. ‘Perhaps the most famous modern feminist of all’, Murray declares. As Murray notes Greer essentially devotes one chapter in a single book to transgender people, unfortunately it’s a series of unfounded and gross opinions. Greer loses the potential favour she once possessed and is denied public talks in some instances. Murray says students at one university ‘didn’t want to hear from the most significant feminist of the late twentieth century.’ I can’t really recall the last time outside of transgender-related controversies that Greer was relevant to contemporary feminism. I’m not disputing at one time she probably had something to say but that time has long since passed. Murray seems to think it’s a sort of betrayal of previous feminist activism to dispose of Greer, but she was by no means the sole figure of the movement. There are many activists preceding and contemporary to Greer that would find her views reductive and useless. Here, I think of Judith Butler, Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir, Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson. Posie Parker (Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull) makes an appearance when she spent £700 hiring a billboard to display the dictionary definition of a woman. Apparently, she was concerned about the word becoming appropriated to mean anything, of course words do tend to change over time and therefore different definitions and requirements come along. Keen-Minshull spends most of her time campaigning against trans people and doesn’t seem to spend any money on fixing women’s, even just cis women’s, issues. She uses the same tired and disproven ideas around trans people being dangerous or predatory to cis women that every transphobe is inclined to use.

            Here I want to make another point about the discussion of TERFs or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists in conflict with trans people. Murray states ‘perhaps the most obvious point of non-overlap with the trans movement is that in many ways trans does not challenge social constructs about gender, but reinforces them.’ Is this true though? Youtuber Blaire White is used as an example of a trans woman with ‘the body type of a sort of teenage male fantasy pin-up woman: all prominent breasts, flicking hair and pouting lips.’ The opposite end of this is activist Jane Fae who knitted during a panel at the University of Manchester. Surely two examples of two diverse representations of transwomen does not a good argument make. Trans people, whether they identify as male or female or non-binary present themselves in all manner of ways. There are trans women with shaved heads, there are trans men with man buns, there are non-binary people with beards and with clean faces. This seems like a pretty flimsy point to raise. People choose to present themselves how they feel best affirms them, it is not stereotyping if there is a broad range of gender expressions on display. Also, surely it is the pinnacle of feminism that a woman or a man or a non-binary person may choose to present themselves how they like. If people want to wear sun dresses and bake cakes why not? If people want to cultivate beards and wear spiky leather jackets good for them. I don’t see the fall of Western Civilisation coming (at least not from the self-determination of every individual in their gender expression).

            Next, Murray covers the general representation of trans people in the media and goes onto linking this with trans children. I think the concern Murray raises here is the possibility of detransitioning or regret. He finds it disconcerting that Dr Olson-Kennedy has at times prescribed hormones for children as young as 12. Murray calls Olson-Kennedy ‘dogmatic’ in her beliefs surrounding medical treatment for trans people, which is an interesting characterisation of somebody following the scientific outcomes which overwhelmingly state that those who transition whether with surgery or hormones or both feel no regret. He chides her for her off-hand comments about those who get chest surgery, her argument being ‘‘If you want breasts at a later point in your life you can go and get them.’’ His indignation at this seems fairly irrational: ‘Really? Where? How? Are people like blocks of Lego onto which new pieces can be stuck, taken off and replaced again at will?’ Perhaps a small amount of Googling would have told Murray that people who receive mastectomies can in fact have breast implants, as is evidenced by women who have mastectomies owing to breast cancer. Again, here Murray looks to the exception of those who regret surgery as being the rule. These people who detransition deserve an equal amount of treatment and care as trans people do, but they are in the absolute minority and it would be disingenuous to see their experience as some sort of wider problem within trans discourse. As if to compound Murray’s illiteracy or inability to see the facts, Olson-Kennedy’s study (which he cites), is where I take the overwhelmingly positive outcome of transitioning from.

            Towards the end of this chapter, Murray says ‘The demand that everyone should agree to use new gender pronouns and get used to people of the opposite sex being in the same bathrooms is at the relatively frivolous end of the spectrum of demands.’ This is incorrect for many reasons. Using a person’s right pronouns is an obvious step in the right direction considering the major reason for trans people’s potential suicidality is being rejected by society. It is not unreasonable to become accustomed to trans people using the same spaces as cis people. One study shows when framed neutrally, 69% of respondents were supportive of transgender access to their preferred bathrooms. When transgender people were framed as a danger to women or children, the support dropped to 50%. Of course, the important point to note here is that there is no evidence to suggest that trans people pose any significant threat to cis people, if anything they are more likely at risk of attack or assault. It is usually framed as cis women being the victims of trans women yet according to one study cis women actually perceive trans women as less dangerous than cis men do. Not only this, but cis men are more likely to blame trans victims of assault and consider the assault of trans people less severe. Here we see a public perception of trans people (mostly from cis men) which does not correlate with the actual lived experiences of trans people. There is nothing frivolous here about using the right pronouns or allowing trans people into the same spaces as cis people.

            The final point I will highlight is a very small section on non-binary and gender fluid people which I think is where Murray shoots himself in the foot. For some reason Murray claims that non-binary and gender fluid people as ‘concepts’ have been invented from the atmosphere of trans discourse where cis people are not allowed to speak or object. Here, he is essentially arguing non-binary and gender fluid people exist because cis people can’t criticise trans people without being publicly shamed for it. Murray literally began this chapter with a history of non-binary and genderfluid people from varying cultures throughout history! Does he not remember when he wrote this? Non-binary and genderfluid people aren’t new, Douglas, you acknowledged this!!! He claims that the BBC video (you can find on YouTube) called Things Not to Say to a Non-Binary Person is just attention-seeking on the trans people’s part, but it’s a film that’s meant to raise awareness about a misunderstood demographic. That’s why they’re being filmed! The mind boggles.

            Murray concludes ‘The problem at present is not the disparity, but the certainty – the spurious certainty with which an unbelievably unclear issue is presented as though it was the clearest and best understood thing imaginable.’ As has been the case throughout the chapter, here when Murray argues that certainty on trans issues is spurious, he is suggesting that the vast majority of scientific literature which supports trans adults and youth is invalid on…some grounds? Of course, there is more research to be done and is being conducted all the time, but so far the scientists and medical professionals who are proponents of trans rights do so with full knowledge of the ongoing literature. Maybe next time Murray should cite some.

Further Reading:

On Intersex People: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/10/its-intersex-awareness-day-here-are-5-myths-we-need-to-shatter/
https://oiieurope.org/malta-declaration/
https://web.archive.org/web/20161103133403/https://transactivists.org/2016/10/26/iad2016-a-message-from-mauro-cabral/

Autogynephilia: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0038026120934690

Violence towards LGBTQIA+ people: https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community

Difference Between Sex and Gender: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2689237/

Chest Surgery: https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/reconstruction-fact-sheet#will-health-insurance-pay-for-breast-reconstruction

Detransitioning: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/news/dispelling-myths-around-detransition

Attitudes Towards Trans People: https://gap.hks.harvard.edu/using-experiments-understand-public-attitudes-towards-transgender-rights
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12147-016-9181-6

Things Not to Say to Non-Binary People film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8b4MZjMVgdk&ab_channel=BBCThree

Generally, a great resource on gender and sex science: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/stop-using-phony-science-to-justify-transphobia/

Categories
Criticism

Questions for Poetry

What is a poem? Is it heightened language? When is a poem not a poem? When it is prose? What if poetry and prose can be one? Does verse still have merit in ultramodernity? Does poetry have merit? Is beauty attainable? Is beauty taken to be the inherent goal of poetry? Can something be beautiful and anti-beautiful? Is poetry refined streams of consciousness?

            What is the voice in poetry? Is it plural? Does a poem stand on its own? Or does it co-operate and form a wider collection of text? Is it useful to question poetry? Is a poem for me or for you?

            Does a poem have to constitute cohesive language? Can it possess narrative? Is this a short story on fast forward? Does a poem have characters? Or setting?

            Is a poem airing one’s dirty laundry? Is it airing someone else’s? Should poetry be therapy or a diary or neither? Does one write poetry to uplift or undermine the art?

            Can a poem contain positive substance? Does anger come across in poetry? Should an overall emotion be clear? Does poetry ask anything or does it answer something?

            If a poem incorporates sound does it become music? Doesn’t poetry inherently incorporate sound? Would a series of pictures qualify as poetry? When is somebody a poet?

            Who is the poet and who is the voice? If you have to imagine, would a cat or a dog be more likely to read poetry? What about write it? When is the best time to write? In the morning? At noon? After supper? In the dead of night?

            Does poetry come out fresh on the page as concise and refined text or does it start life as a probing mass? Is poetry better when it is shorter or longer?

            Can a poem convey the season without mentioning it by name? What does it mean to be timeless? Or is everything only of its time? Is poetry of the bourgeoisie or is it in the contemporary moment classless?

            Is a poem over at the final line or does its indentation in our minds prolong its life? Which words belong to whom? Is it okay to borrow? Do you discern this from stealing?

            If a poem can be a declaration of love or an attempt at seduction can it also act as an apology? Can a poem inspire revolution? Is it better suited to stuff the neck of a petrol bomb? When is erotic poetry effective?

            Is it better to adhere to known form or to attempt utter newness? Is new possible after modernity? Should you write drunk and edit sober or never start drinking and never stop writing? Can writing produce pleasure akin to alcohol?

            Is a poem more like a Moscow Mule or a pint of bitter? Does ekphrasis illuminate the original piece of art? Can one commodify the poem? Does commercial poetry exist? Is this agreeable or objectionable?

            Is it rewarding to see a relative or a stranger cry reading your poetry? Do you show your poetry or keep it your dirty little secret? Does it matter if a poem is conceived on paper, phone, or computer?

            What is the relationship between poetry and philosophy if any at all? If one wanted to write poetry should one also write in conjunction a novel? If a novelist writes poetry would it undermine the poet? If one is a novelist and a poet is one a writer?

            Is poetry an exercise in thought? Is it necessary to play with language? Is it possible to un-play with language? Should poetry possess moral character? How much poetry should a poet read?

            How do you justify the imagery deployed in poetry? Does inconsistency work? Is purposefully confounding the reader clever or annoying or elitist? Is there an end to poetry? Would it be with a bang or with a whimper? If poetry meets its end has humanity gone the same way?

Categories
Criticism

Is The Haunting of Bly Manor Scary?

Opinions seem to be divided on Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. Some people deride it for not being scary, others (in the medium of clickbait article titles) claim it to cause them sleepless nights. I guess what I’m interested in is what does it mean for something to be scary? Is it the mechanics behind which stuff is visually represented, the sound design, the timing, the design of the characters? Or is it the implications, the themes that underline the story? Or is it all these factors? I’d wager Flanagan’s previous series The Haunting of Hill House is scarier on an immediate visual level, although I would argue Bly Manor still has something to offer.

            Whereas Hill House dealt with issues surrounding familial trauma, Bly Manor seems more directly interested in what constitutes ghostliness and haunting, in a word:  memory. I read recently in Dan O’Brien’s An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge that our ability to conceive of ourselves is only viable in consideration of our past and future, put another way, how do we know things if we have no memory, if every moment was stripped of prior context? I suppose what I am getting at here is that Bly Manor delves into the implications of being forgotten, or being remembered only through trauma.

            The ghosts in Bly Manor are interesting in that their sense of self is dependent on those still living, as can be seen with Peter and Rebecca, Viola and Perdita. The representation of being forgotten is chilling in the early episodes, seeing Perdita in the corner of the attic, faceless and yearning for attention, gives almost obvious credence to the loss of personal identity. It seems as if there are multiple ways to remember and forget within Bly Manor.

            In the tragic cases of Viola and Perdita their identities are wiped away, they still exist, albeit more so as sensations than fully formed people. There is no-one left to truly remember them as they were and they are cursed to linger on the grounds of their old home. With Peter and Rebecca, they are still remembered by the staff of Bly Manor but are visible and manifest to the children, Miles and Flora. The other, less visible forms of forgetting and remembrance come with the treatment of the children by their uncle Henry and of the commemoration of Hannah by Owen.

            Henry’s guilt surrounding the death of Miles and Flora’s parents makes him distance himself from them, limiting contact even through their nanny Dani as much as possible. In his estrangement from Miles and Flora, he potentially allows them to be forgotten, in so much as they are at risk of joining the ghosts of Bly Manor under Peter’s scheme. It is only with his hurried arrival in the final episode that he not only aids in rescuing the children but frees them, taking on the parental role he has long neglected.

            With Hannah, her remembrance is simpler in some regards to that of Viola. When Viola is invited into Dani, Hannah and the other ghosts of Bly Manor are allowed to move on. With the transferal of the traumatic wound, Viola, Hannah is allowed to be at peace and thus remembered properly. Owen hangs a photo of her in his restaurant, remembering her as she was and bringing her in memory as close to their shared dream of Paris as possible.

            Perhaps it is not necessarily scary, but it is undoubtedly tragic that Dani frees all the inhabitants of Bly Manor at the cost of herself. Henry, Miles, and Flora all forget what has occurred. All the ghosts bar Viola have moved on. Dani tries to make a life with Jamie but in inviting Viola into herself, she has absorbed the traumatic wound that festered Bly. She cannot forget Viola, cannot forget what has happened to herself and the others. In every reflection, a reminder of past pain and of past violence. The pain of the past becomes Dani’s present.

            There may be more frightening media out there, more jump scares and more chilling ambiences, but Bly Manor’s concentration on memory remains with me. The idea of being forgotten, of our identities blurring and distorting into almost nightmarish mannequin-esque anonymity could frighten anyone. At least, there’s the rub. Even after our biological deaths, the memories of ourselves are playing against the clock. Maybe for a little while we can be remembered like Hannah, through simple photographs and in the hearts of good-natured people. The most we can hope for is that we do not become like Viola, that we do not open the traumatic wound for those after us. The implication that we could be stubborn to death like Viola and become the dehumanised and raging lady of the lake, is to me personally scary.  

Categories
Criticism

American Horror Story – Cult: Liberal Nihilism

You’re not a hero. You’re a symbol, one I created! Killing people doesn’t get the men hard and the ladies wet anymore. But Americans lose their ever-loving shit when you destroy their symbols – statues, flags, pledges of allegiance, $20 bills, white Jesus and Merry fucking Christmas! You come for any of that stuff, you’ve got rioting in the streets and domination of the news cycle for weeks.

-Kai Anderson, Cult.

American Horror Story: Cult felt like the lamest of the show’s iterations. I have no problem with media that wishes to tackle contemporary political issues, but Cult was both heavy-handed and inept in its attempt. I quote Ben Gazur writing for the Guardian about the season:

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016. This was a problem for the world in general and American Horror Story in particular. Horror and satire died that day. Nothing the writers could imagine comes close to the visceral shock of that moment – but they decided to offer their hot take anyway.

I agree with the sentiment of Gazur’s point here and would expand to say that American Horror Story floundered in addressing contemporary politics precisely because the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right is a quintessential American Horror Story. Perhaps satire died or was wounded, but horror? How could horror still not be used to address the profuse evil and ugliness that was more and more visibly rearing its head? I argue that the ideology of Cult is one of liberal nihilism, it tries to contend that the Democrats and the Republicans are both cults, whilst offering only a vague mutation of both establishment groups as a way forward. There is nothing inherently profound to the idea that politics and political groups are akin to cults, read Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (more technical) or First As Tragedy, Then As Farce (more polemical), and you can understand the basic principles of belief and contradiction that make up ideology. It is not just the overall ideology of liberal nihilism which I have a problem with, but also the absence of the Left proper so to speak. In this show we get liberal small business owners, we get MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters, and we get Alt-right basement-dwelling militias a la Fight Club. Where is the Left, I ask? Apart from a brief couple of minutes of people (readable as antifascists) protesting in the park against cult leader Kai’s speech, there is no real sense of an alternative to him, there is no opposite end of the spectrum in the show. There are only people working within the capitalist-Symbolic order as it were, who are aware there is something wrong with the society and the people around them, but are only able to address it within the very limited confines of Liberalism. I am not suggesting the show should have had Joseph Stalin burst into a scene, rifle in hand, but it could have done more with its subject matter than basic, lame caricatures from a very narrow window of American politics.

            I would say that Cult tries to address two contemporary issues that encapsulate part of America’s political landscape, one is racism and the other is sexism. Racism feels present in the first few episodes, we see Kai antagonising migrants to frame them as being violent, but then race sort of tails off from the season. Sexism is the issue given more attention throughout, and often it feels awkwardly handled. It feels like the presence of feminism within the show is of a liberal, white variety. It does not really have any interest past surface level appearances of injustice. Characters like Winter and Ivy are outraged that Hillary Clinton lost, and the show frequently, whether it agrees with this idea, frames Clinton as being a feminist, or an icon of feminism. If Clinton is viewed as a symbol for feminist change and progress, she is an empty one, she speaks only to the visibility of women within capitalist-patriarchal structures. Her politics and history are anything but feminist and the show glosses over this. In fact, I do not think the show looks at politics in any especially interesting way, no policies are mentioned, no consequences for the victims of these policies are really seen. It is all spectacle, all show – women in positions of power are good, no matter what their politics are.

There is an interesting focus on Valerie Solanas which brings with her the closest thing to a ‘radical’ opposition to sexism. I think the portrayal of Solanas by Lena Dunham is symptomatic of the show’s larger problems. Dunham is at best a problematic feminist figure and at worst an obstructive one, managing to articulate herself poorly on various issues and at times lashing out against black women. Her rejection of Aurora Perrineau’s sexual assault accusation against Murray Miller speaks to a wider problem within white feminism, a tendency to not support and extend their focus beyond the most mainstream issues and therefore leave women of colour out in the cold. The casting of Dunham and the general focus on white women within Cult leaves me disappointed. Generally, I think American Horror Story is pretty good with ethnic minority and queer representation but in the one season where both these categories are perhaps most necessary to be given voices, they occupy a very small portion of the show. Beverly is the only non-white main character whilst Ally and Ivy are at least centre stage lesbians, although sadly the perceived queerness of other characters like Kai and Samuels seems to just link homosexuality with women-hating. I’m not saying these representations alone are the problem so much as it is the fact that it is often poorer queer white and non-whites who are at risk in America be it economic instability or violence carried out by bigots and fascists.  

            Kai refers to numerous famous cult leaders within the show, including Charles Manson. He claims Manson snapped America out of the haze of the hippy movement. In False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kathleen Geier mentions that during the hippie movement Clinton spoke vocally in favour of women’s progress within society before then diverting into a more subdued, corporate legal career. Does the increasing deindustrialisation and expansion of capitalism within America spiriting Clinton away from her radical hippiness not mirror Manson’s dismantling of hippie conceptions via his race-war inspired murders? It feels like within Cult we are meant to be aware of the explicit violence within society which causes traumatic change of the political landscape e.g. terrorist attacks, school shootings, without being aware of the wider, more all-consuming powers which truly bring about ideological extremes such as Trump and the Alt-Right. When Manson spoke about his driving motivations, famously sampled by Death Grips, does he not in a sense reflect the wider powers that be?

What the hell I wanna go off into — and go to work for?

Work for what, money? I got all the money in the world

I’m the king, man

I run the underworld, guy

I decide whos does what and where they do it at

What am I, gonna run around and act like I’m some teenybopper somewhere, for somebody else’s money?

I make the money, man, I roll the nickels

The game is mine

I deal the cards

Sure, Manson spoke these words, but could we also not attribute them to politicians, to capitalists, to those in hierarchal positions of power, who in their conscious and unconscious machinations engineer the very discontent, anxieties, and hatred which fester and grow into a form which is not controllable, at least not beneath Liberalism?

            The ending of Cult felt somewhat like Liberal fantasy to me – Kai is of course written to be ridiculous and hateful (his last words being ‘make me a sandwich’), but the points he makes about symbolism chime true. I quoted them at the beginning of this essay because I feel the idea of visibility, of symbolism, is the core of Cult’s politics. It doesn’t matter really what someone like Hillary Clinton stands for, she’s a woman! It doesn’t matter what brought about the empowerment of the Alt-Right or Kai, he’s dead! Pay attention to Manson, his violence is easy to consume and understand, do not pay attention to the disarmament and absorption of the hippie movement into capitalist culture. When the show ends on that final sting of Ally in the mirror wearing the cloak of the Solanas-cum-Zodiac cult, what are we meant to make of this? It feels like a continuation of political action within the very space of Liberalism which only further breeds political discontent across all aisles. Ally and the others all miss the point again, Kai understood partly the importance of optics, the others merely operate within its regions.

Further Reading:

False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, edited by Liza Featherstone.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, by Slavoj Žižek.

The Sublime Object of Ideology, by Slavoj Žižek.

‘When good TV goes bad: how American Horror Story got Trumped’, by Ben Gazur. Accessible at:  https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jun/04/when-good-tv-goes-bad-american-horror-story

‘Zizi Clemmons: ‘It’s Time For Women of Color…to Divest From Lena Dunham’”, by Whitney Kimball. Accessible at: https://jezebel.com/zinzi-clemmons-its-time-for-women-of-color-to-divest-1820587768

Categories
Criticism

Godzilla 1998: Atomic Nothing

Why is…Godzilla? What is…Godzilla? Who is…okay I watched 1998’s American Godzilla on VHS too many times as a kid. There is no accounting for taste. Clearly any chance to watch a giant monster is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on. I recently re-watched Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla on Netflix because there isn’t a lot else going on at the moment. But seriously. I watched it again after a gap of many years, and of course it is bad. It’s corny as all hell. The acting, the characters, the story, the monster design, it’s all very corny. But there’s something below all that stuff, something ingrained in the thought of the film which is kind of just barren. It feels like Godzilla forgets itself, or at least, in the transition to an American production it loses what 1954’s Godzilla had.

In August of 1945, America in agreement with the United Kingdom, dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The brutal and unnecessary show of force by America killed between 129,000-226,000 people. The blast of an atomic bomb is such that it vaporises individuals, bleaching the ground and leaving shadows where once humans stood casting them. The original Godzilla is an embodiment of fear of nuclear annihilation and of a planet at odds with its human inhabitants. What is 1998 Godzilla about? Big monster. New York City. Be ruthless, then don’t be. Godzilla in this film is specifically linked to French nuclear testing and the mutation of lizards, it’s keeping with the theme of nuclear weaponry and their consequences but…it kind of feels like the movie is more just blithe spectacle and a Jurassic Park-esque wonder and fear of Godzilla. The consequences of nuclear testing in the film seems of little importance to the overall story beyond acting as an origin for Godzilla. The same goes for the fact that it is the French who are responsible for the testing and therefore Godzilla’s creation, they are sort of a B plot to the film led by Jean Reno. I guess one could argue that the French and Americans working together shows there must be an international effort to combatting disaster and particularly our relationship with nature but…should we talk about the military?

Are they kind of good? Are they bad? Are they competent? Are they inept? I guess in typical disaster fare they struggle for most of the movie with various strategies against the big monster before finally reigning victorious. However, it must mean something that it was written so the military in this film would cause massive amounts of damage to New York City in its fight against the monster. One of the most vivid scenes of the film is of helicopters firing and missing Godzilla and instead blowing up the Chrysler building. The tone of the movie in this regard is so odd; how excusable and almost laughed off disaster brought on by the military can be. It seems like to a degree it’s a product of its time, as Lindsay Ellis outlined in a brilliant video essay, disaster movies after 9/11 kind of took on a much bleaker and sombre tone in many regards than those of the 90s and 80s. Films like Emmerich’s Independence Day and Godzilla have sentiments that seem a bit off. They contrast heavily with 2014’s Godzilla, inarguably a superior product in terms of production, tone, writing, and its ideas.

Whereas in 1998 Godzilla you had a sense of surface level wonder for this monster, in 2014 Godzilla he inspires this sense of almost pure, devastating awe. When Godzilla wades into Hawaii from the ocean, the innocent bystanders watching him do so in silence, even as the flares of the military illuminate and highlight his vastness, the screams only begin when the military start firing at Godzilla over the heads of the bystanders. Films offer introspection at least on some level by their conclusion but what is the introspection of 1998 and 2014’s Godzillas? When Godzilla is defeated at the end of the 1998 film, there is a brief sense of sadness for the death of this creature, but then it kind of quickly moves on. In 2014 Godzilla, after he defeats the two other monsters, Godzilla retreats back into the ocean, whilst humanity tries to make sense of all the destruction, in part hailing Godzilla as an anti-hero.

Godzilla offers a chance for us to reconsider our relationship with nature. In 1998 Godzilla it feels like the monster is slightly misunderstood but ultimately still a threat to humanity, especially with his ability to produce eggs. When I said just before about the film moving quickly on from the death of Godzilla, it does come back to it, like it ends on a surviving baby Godzilla emerging from its egg. I guess this is a cheap way to end a movie and offers the chance for a sequel (it was part of a planned trilogy) but I think it also inadvertently says something bigger than there is a monster people forgot about, almost like in killing off Godzilla and his babies, humanity hasn’t really dealt with the existential threat at all…because it hasn’t really grappled with the concept of what it means to be vulnerable and smaller to nature as much as sometimes nature is vulnerable to our meddlings.

2014 Godzilla answers this failed reconciliation with a Godzilla who is not bent on destruction but inadvertently causes it when he comes into contact with humanity. Unlike 1998’s Godzilla, ultimately this incarnation is at odds with the other big monsters, the MUTOs, and seems to have little to no interest in humanity…so kind of ends up saving it? In this film it feels more like there is a sense of trying to work alongside nature for something akin to a common goal. With Emmerich’s Godzilla I felt cheated, like there was no real meaning behind the film, or if there was one it was diluted by gratuitous spectacle.

I am not trying to put too much meaning into 2014 Godzilla but it feels like the message behind the monster of Godzilla should be one of reconciling ourselves with our past actions, both towards humanity and nature. We cannot revert the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We cannot wipe the slate clean when it comes to our planet and its wildlife. 2014 Godzilla offers a sense of redemption for humanity, that maybe despite our crimes we are able to find for ourselves a place in this world where we co-exist and live with our consequences.

Further Reading:

Lindsay Ellis, ‘Independence Day vs. War of the Worlds.’ Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KioF1sTQFtE

The Japan Times, ‘Britain backed use of A-bomb against Japan: U.S. documents.’ Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/08/04/national/britain-backed-use-of-a-bomb-against-japan-u-s-documents/#.V0xHPzYrJyp

Edward McDougall, ‘Spirited Away With Heidegger’, iai news. Available at: https://iai.tv/articles/spirited-away-meets-heidegger-we-killed-the-gods-with-technology-but-the-sacredness-of-life-is-continuous-auid-1104

Geoffrey Shepard, ‘It’s clear the US should not have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, Quartz. Available at: https://qz.com/472146/its-clear-the-us-should-not-have-bombed-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/

Bruce Stokes, ‘70 years after Hiroshima, opinions have shifted on use of atomic bomb’, Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/08/04/70-years-after-hiroshima-opinions-have-shifted-on-use-of-atomic-bomb/

Categories
Criticism

My Immortal: An Alternative to Bigotry

I have mixed feelings about Harry Potter. I read all the books as a kid and the Chamber of Secrets video game was unequivocally one of my favourite games of all time. But this series has problems with it, we see that in its portrayal of ethnic minorities, its queer representation, and ultimately it having been created by an incredible bigot. Sadly, JK Rowling, a woman with an unbelievable amount of power, wealth, and influence, is unapologetically hateful towards trans people. I’m not here to disprove each and every stupid claim she’s made in the last few months because people who are much more eloquent than myself have already done so (I’ll link them below this piece). I think it’s fair to say that Harry Potter feels a bit tainted at the moment and it’s meant to act as an escape from life’s problems, that’s why so many millions of people the world over feel so attached to it. How do we reconcile ourselves with wanting to escape into a fantasy world that has been constructed by somebody who is very openly transphobic? I don’t have concrete answers. Maybe for the time being Hogwarts isn’t something that can be appreciated or lived in in the ways it once was for people.

            Enter My Immortal. This is the greatest piece of fan fiction of all time and is undoubtedly a parody. If you are not aware, My Immortal is a self-insert fan fiction based around the impossibly ‘perfect’ Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, a name so brilliant it has rendered all other fictional characters inferior by comparison. Ebony is hilariously unlikeable and the story is so perfectly riddled with contradictions and inaccuracies and mistakes whilst also offering a chance to escape to Hogwarts. I think this fan fiction balances perfectly the mockery of Harry Potter fan fictions whilst creating an atmosphere that allows you to still be immersed in its world, albeit one where Albus Dumbledore, famously a wizard of quiet dignity and wisdom, screams “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU MOTHERFUKERS!” at two of his students who he has just caught having sex outside the Forbidden Forest. I shit you not. This whole piece is just an advertisement for this fan fiction, I cannot recommend it enough. It lifts your spirits reading it. You get amazing ‘unintentional’ laughs whilst also getting the fantasy world of Harry Potter that has otherwise been a bit tainted by the original creator. My Immortal is truly art, it is transcendent in its use of Rowling’s intellectual property.

            There is an amazing adaptation of My Immortal on Mediajunkie Studios’ Youtube channel which takes the source material and goes even further with it, adding more character drama and more emotion! If you’ve arrived at the web series adaptation you are now two spaces removed from JK Rowling, an ideal place to be! This adaptation even has good minority representation both with race and sexuality, something the original Harry Potter failed to do very well. Rather than alluding to characters’ sexualities after the fact, My Immortal has blatant representations of queer love, it builds drama around these love triangles and creates decent tension. What My Immortal the web series achieves is a place for people of all backgrounds and experiences to exist within the world of Harry Potter, something JK Rowling might have vaguely once spoken to but failed to make good on.  

            I like the world of Harry Potter, even though it does have deficiencies and the writer is a bigot. Right now, I’m in no rush to re-read those books or watch the movies, but it’s not like there isn’t more on offer out there. My Immortal is so fun and deserves all the recognition it gets. It is possible to find ways to appreciate Hogwarts and the world of Harry Potter without it being Rowling’s world. The Author is dead, so to speak. Re-appropriate and parody the work, make it something bigger than just what one person envisioned it as being. Hogwarts is our oyster.

Trans rights are human rights.

Trans men are men.

Trans women are women.

Non-binary people are non-binary.

A Bibliography of Debunking Rowling’s claims:

Jammidodger’s ‘Responding to JK Rowlings Essay | Is It Anti-Trans?’:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Avcp-e4bOs&t=1131s

Anna Medaris Miller and Canela López’s ‘J.K. Rowling said there’s been an ‘explosion’ of young women transitioning and de-transitioning. There’s no evidence that’s true.’ https://www.insider.com/jk-rowling-says-explosion-of-young-women-have-transitioned-detransitioned-2020-6

Katy Montgomerie’s ‘Addressing The Claims In JK Rowling’s Justification For Transphobia’ https://medium.com/@KatyMontgomerie/addressing-the-claims-in-jk-rowlings-justification-for-transphobia-7b6f761e8f8f

Sources for My Immortal:

The story: https://www.wattpad.com/story/40796325-my-immortal

The web series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zpx_Cf0KCrM&list=PLjRR1J3NOisDqBG6Pn-nqn51Cw96VPfTu

Categories
Criticism

Kafka’s The Trial: Vulgarity and The Law

In Kafka’s The Trial, there is a sense of vulgarity that exists beneath the sublime surface of the legal proceedings that take place throughout the novel. A preliminary glimpse of this vulgarity, of the ‘Real’ that exists beneath the Symbolic, is the assault of the woman who runs the apartment that doubles as the courtroom. The assault happens during Josef K’s first hearing, displaying an immediate sense of something lecherous and pornographic beneath the austere nature of the court. This foreshadows in some ways the dissolving of the court’s literature as having been a Sublime Object, K. takes these texts to be of great import and highly relevant to not only his case but the Law in general. However, when he returns to the apartment, he discovers in what he presumes to be a law book an ‘indecent picture.’  Hence, an object revered here upon closer inspection has been found to be nothing but explicitly vulgar, “It’s by people like this I’m supposed to be judged.”  The assumption K. qua Subject makes of the Big Other is that his desires are prohibited in so much as they are out of reach in the Symbolic realm. The Big Other whilst obscuring its desire (what is K. charged with?) does reveal its own mirroring nature, at times displaying through acts (like the assault of the washerwoman) K.’s own desires. Does the assault of the washerwoman by a law student not reflect K.’s own assault upon Fräulein Bürstner in the first chapter?  It is K.’s attempts to obey the Big Other which display its constructed nature, which in a sense displays its inexistence. The Big Other exists in so far as the Subject requires it for themselves to exist as Subjects, hence why K.’s expectations of the Law fall short but the Law comes to reflect him in a way he is unable to perceive in himself e.g. the libidinal, the vulgar. 

            When K. meets with Titorelli the courtroom painter, the Law as a Symbolic structure is more evident here than anywhere else in the novel. One of the portraits Titorelli is commissioned to paint works as a useful analogy of the Law and the Big Other. K. is hesitant to identify the portrait as that of a judge: “That’s a judge of course,’ K. had almost blurted out, but he restrained himself for a moment and went up to the picture as if he wanted to study the details.’  This restraint is the Subject struggling to identify the Big Other when personified. Although we already know that K.’s expectations of the Law have been mismatched since the first hearing and the uncovering of the pornography, here there is still a dissonance in what constitutes ‘justice.’ K. notes that the figure of Justice in the portrait should not be running, for “the scales will waver and there’s no possibility of a correct judgement.”  It is as if when faced with the very nature of the Law, which the Subject presumes to speak and desire for him, K. is unable to recognise its radical alterity to himself, in spite of the fact that he feels the need to comply to this Big Other. The construction of the Big Other is drawn out again when K. assumes Titorelli has met the subject of the portrait, only to be corrected: “I’ve seen neither the figure nor the chair, all that’s invention, I was simply told what I had to paint.”  “All that’s invention” works as an excellent symptom on the painter’s behalf, giving one the chance to glimpse at the truth of the Law, that its authority is constructed by the Subject’s presumptions of the Big Other and by its own inaccessibility: “You see, the lowest judges […] have no authority to pronounce final acquittal; this authority is vested only in the highest court, which is inaccessible to you, to me, and to everybody.”  I argue the cementing of the relation between the Subject and the Big Other in The Trial is best represented in Titorelli’s afterthought: “How things look up there we don’t know and, I should add, we don’t want to know.”

Categories
Criticism

The Ethics of Annotation

To highlight is to transgress, to indelibly change the text’s material being as well as its textual being. It is to give precedence to some aspect of the book, to suggest an idea requires further thought or exploration. Many studies show we prefer a physical, hard copy of a book compared to its e-book counterpart. We delight in buying new books from places like Amazon and Waterstones. The books we purchase are perfect and presented as intended by their publishers, in some circumstances if a book is damaged you can get a discount for it. I have an anthology of Latin literature I bought reduced from Waterstones because the back cover and subsequent pages were torn in one corner. I got a discount on a biography of A. E. Housman from a local independent bookstore because the cover had a strange indentation not dissimilar to the outline of a staple. Like these physical damages, once you highlight in a book you reduce its monetary value, it is no longer possible to be said that this book is unread or that it was not used in some way, it has lost its newness, confined at best to the category of ‘good’ if not ‘well-read’. Our own conception of the marked value of the words within books is at odds with their value in the market. This is all fairly obvious, you drop a book in the bath, or write in it, or do anything to it that alters the condition it arrived to you in and it cannot retain the original value it had. My point here is that the experience of buying a new book creates a hesitation in the reader from highlighting in it. We like shiny new things, or in this case, clean white pages. I have resisted for the longest time annotating my books.          

I tried to read Judith Butler’s notoriously dense Gender Trouble three times before I could get past the first thirty pages or so. In my final attempt I kept a highlighter on hand and made my way through the book. I finished Gender Trouble and I think I owed it almost entirely to my ability to highlight most of the text as I went. As I highlighted the book, I took in more of its ideas, essentially imprinting in my brain the words from the text. By highlighting the book, the book highlighted within me as well, ridiculous a notion as it may seem.

When we read from school copies of books for English class, often passages are underlined in pencil, and occasionally there are small remarks or observations made in the margins. Sometimes the observations e.g. red dress = desire, blue curtains = depression, are of use to us, we either agree with them and retain them or we discard them. I think the pencilled-in remarks of previous pupils is important for us to see for ourselves, to understand when we study a text we are a part of a chain of people, in a microcosmic sense, a part of the ongoing practice of cultural study that came before us and that will precede after us.

Sometimes owners of books go further than direct annotation of the text and write their own names on the inside cover of the books or write inscriptions to friends and loved ones. I own a second-hand copy of Jacques Lacan’s Écrits with the inscription: ‘To Chloe Merry Christmas 2009! Love Ed xxx.’ Perhaps it was Chloe who beat me to the chase and had already helpfully highlighted certain passages I would have desired to bring attention to further. At times my highlighter (green being the colour of choice on this occasion) and her pencil negotiated the page. Sometimes my highlighter went over a phrase or even an individual word already highlighted, the wiggly pencil work still visible beneath the neon green. I am by no means an expert in Lacanian psychoanalysis, but whatever knowledge I possess of it I cannot owe purely to the text produced by Jacques Lacan and provided by Routledge. We are all capable of being rational, critical individuals, and the ‘we’ here is the point, there are many of us, in fact the totality of human existence so to speak, that is in the act of thought and interpretation, annotating what we consider vital. I think part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize lecture compliments this point:

‘There are large glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?’

Whilst Ishiguro is discussing fiction and the act of reading, doesn’t highlighting provide a similar role when seen by another? Could we not say that when we highlight, we potentially desire and hope for confirmation or recognition by those after us?

            Ideas don’t belong to any one specific person, or if they do, they are not entombed with that individual. Marx is not some crank with ideas long forgotten and unspoken, Freud is not the beginning and end of psychology, ideas are fluid things. They don’t stay on the page, they enter our brains, they leave our mouths. We dilute them and concentrate them, chop certain details out or switch things around, add other details we deem pertinent. The first English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex condensed much of Beauvoir’s long tracts of thought and sanitised much of the text of its original existentialist philosophy. The text is fluid, for better or worse, its translation changed the flow of ideas and its very content. With the updated translation, the translators reinstated the existentialist strains which coursed through the book and restored Beauvoir’s longer paragraphs, allowing an English audience to read the work as it was intended to be across cultures. Ideas and their presentation can be trial and error. If earlier ideas and forms of existence had in any sense been perfect, there would be no further use for thought and interpretation, yet here we are.

            Looping back around, annotation and highlighting books should be heartily encouraged. We owe our intellectual and cultural circumstances to those who came before us, whether their words are the ones printed in ink or the ones pencilled in the margins next to the former. We don’t have to agree with the ideas prior to ourselves, but I try to appreciate every trace of another human I find in a book. I will go on highlighting and annotating for my own benefit, it is for those after me to decide if any of them are of significance beyond personal appreciation. Perhaps all my books will become pulp, or the ink might fade from the pages, or I might in an act of near-death mania resign to be buried with them all. I hope that before any of these outcomes someone else may read them, make use of them somehow. It is hope I subsist on as I think we are all known to do. I hope despite the amateur philosophising in this writing that I may press upon you the point that ideas are vital, that our individuality is important, but so is the wealth of individuals and ideas outside of ourselves. To end on borrowed words, can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?