No Pride in Appropriation

I have an op-ed out now in Hyperallergic about an incident of cultural appropriation at this year’s WorldPride in NYC. This was really hard to write. And I’m not sure I managed to be as precise or nuanced as I wanted, but I’m glad it’s out now. Click through here.

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Vengo a hablar de política (Revista Anfibia)

I have an essay out in Revista Anfibia (in Spanish) about Claudia Rodríguez, her visit to NYC and Stony Brook University, and the affective fields at play in travesti politics across contexts.

You can read it here.

Here’s the opening:

– ¿De qué tienen que hablar las travestis?

Claudia Rodríguez deja caer la frase con cierta ambivalencia. Sostiene un cuaderno en la mano sin mirarlo. Uñas anaranjadas, voz honda, coqueta, así se presenta ante un público integrado por alumnxs de literatura latinoamericana, estudios de género y sexualidad, profesorxs universitarios y activistas LGBT que se acercaron a escucharla. Hoy no está en Santiago de Chile, donde vive, sino Estados Unidos, en una universidad pública de Nueva York.


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Claudia with “el poto” of the Wall Street Bull (photo: Joseph Pierce)

Roma is a Beautiful Film of Indigenous Erasure

I wrote a short review/reflection on Alfonso Cuarón’s recent film, Roma, which was published in Indian Country Today. You can click through here, or read below.

Roma is a Beautiful Film of Indigenous Erasure

Roma is a piece of cinematographic artistry that cements Alfonso Cuarón as one of the most accomplished visual storytellers of our time. Roma is sumptuous and tender. And yet, I hate this film. Vehemently.

I am a professor of Latin American studies, so I understand a bit of the history that Cuarón is portraying. I am also Cherokee. And as an Indigenous person, when I saw Roma my first reaction was rage—a feeling like helplessness and deception and longing all at the same time, a feeling that welled up inside and burned.

I hated seeing an Indigenous woman, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), negotiate her circumstances with such grace. Or rather, I hated the circumstances themselves, the colonial history that endures in Cleo, and which she bears with silent dignity.

Maybe I felt rage because what I saw in Cleo the impossibility of Indigenous life. Maybe because I saw in Roma not sensitivity, but the continuation of an imaginary that can only see Indigenous women as the surrogate life force of a still-colonial society that is oblivious to its hubris, and its past, and its ongoing indifference toward the survival of Indigenous women. It may seem contradictory, but Roma is a film that both stars and Indigenous woman and harnesses indigeneity to do the work of white supremacy at the same time.

While Roma dwells on the quotidian—banal moments of silence and of implicit understanding of place, station, duty—those moments are infused with meaning because of the impossibility of Cleo’s life within such constraints. For all its aesthetic mastery, Roma is essentially an upper class mea culpa.

More to the point: Cuarón mines Indigenous life for its allegorical power to connect elite families, at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Roma invokes a Mexico of 1970 that is incapable of imagining that Cleo is anything other than a source of feeling for other people, for people other than herself—because, of course—she has no one but herself. Roma’s affective fabric depends on Cleo’s silent endurance.

The film reprises a line of thinking that was taken up with more nuance in La teta asustada “The Milk of Sorrow” (2009 Dir. Claudia Llosa), which dwells on the transmission of intergenerational trauma during and after Peru’s Armed Internal conflict (1980-2000). Fausta (Magaly Solier) is a Quecha-speaking domestic servant in the home of Aída, a white upper class pianist. But while La teta asustada portrays memory as the engine of indigenous agency, in Roma, memory is circumscribed to the domain of melancholic projection.

In Roma’s pivotal hospital scene, Cleo admits, crying that she did not want her child. How are we to take that line? (Querer in Spanish is both to want and to love). I did not want, but should have wanted. I did not want, but wanted to want. I did not love but had no way of loving this child that could never have been anything more than a burden. This is the role of indigeneity in the film: Cleo’s body is only ever a source of emotional debt, yet another resource from which to extract emotional value.

Perhaps this is where my sense of rage comes from. The rage of seeing myself in her, and in that stillborn child. The rage of seeing her child die while her master’s children live.

The film’s pathos is not aimed at people like me, I have realized, but for those who can transit the colonial imaginary as agents of history, rather than its collateral damage, or its residue.

This is the rage of being an Indian watching Roma. I see myself reflected in a future that can only ever be stillborn in this time, in this place, in this land of conquest. Despite its gesture toward empathy, this is a film that does not celebrate Indigenous presence, but mines our capacity to endure in spite of our constant erasure.

It is not so much that the film is insensitive to Indigenous peoples. Quite the contrary, Roma depends on the pain we embed in our bodies and in our memories, the pain of our colonial past that is both present and future. I hate Roma because it turns Indigenous pain into the condition of possibility of our existence as objects of a history that will never be ours.

Syllabus on Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee Citizenship, and DNA Testing

I had the great fortune to be able to work with two other Cherokee writer/activist/scholars (Adrienne Keene and Rebecca Nagle) on a syllabus that contextualizes Elizabeth Warren’s recent claims to Cherokee ancestry. The document is up on the Critical Ethnic Studies Journal blog. So check it out there, or, if you want, you can download the file as a .pdf here: Syllabus_ Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee Citizenship, and DNA Testing. I’m particularly proud of the last line of our collectively written introduction: “take a look at this syllabus and then we’ll talk”.

Men Have Futures, Women Have Memories: The Temporal Logics of Sexual Violence

This is not the feeling of failure. Not injustice. Not fear. Not doubt. It is the grinding of justice out of the bodies of women–justice that is based on turning women into bodies, on turning women into matter, into the fleshly abundance of femininity that serves to remind them that men have the power to endow meaning to bodies. This is justice for patriarchal violence. It is the justice of that violence. It depends on a logic of power. It is not the feeling of disconnect, but the orchestration of how violence becomes myth. Man has this power. And until he is no more—and I mean that—women will remain the object of his wrath. This is patriarchy edging toward perfection. Because patriarchy is not a feeling, but a mode of engrossing power, the power to define, to defeat, to enter into the bodies of women and extract from them the willingness to carry on. Patriarchy, here, now, is the ability to see a woman not as human, but flesh.

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On the one hand, we hear the “boys will be boys” defense, which excuses a man’s violent acts because they took place in the past, during a period of youthful indiscretion characteristic of all men. On the other, we hear the “but why did she take so long to report it?” or the “she is being an opportunist” or the “she is just looking for attention” defense, which imagines that an act of sexual violence only bears scrutiny in the present. According to these two logics, sexual violence is only comprehensible through its immediacy—it is of the now. And once that moment has passed, the promising future of men takes over. This is the temporal power of patriarchy: to determine what counts as memory, and how.

Yes, #Metoo is working, and as recent moves to change the way that sexual assault charges are rendered legitimate, much of the Kavanaugh debate has to do with how we judge the past. It is not so much that people are claiming he did not sexually assault Christine Blasey Ford when he was 17 and she was 15 years old. Really, people seem more concerned with whether or not too much time has passed between that alleged sexual assault and now. It’s the timing that matters. The irony: for a man up for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court (a position based on its futurity), it is the reemergence of his past that has come to dominate proceedings.

The timing matters because Kavanaugh, like many, many, men cannot have a past, only a future.

For men, it seems, the disruption of patriarchal time means not knowing when a woman will lurch forward and “ruin your life”. For the man who did that thing that one time when he was drunk in high school, the man who became a respected professional, the man who has talent and a future, why should this ruin his reputation? A man has a future. A woman has a past.

Thus, people resort to the “boys will be boys” defense, a tautology comes to stand in for redoubling the effects of masculine violence on the bodies of women. The phrase prophesies for that boy a sense of himself as unburdened by the questions that women face, unburdened, what is more, by the real consequences of growing up under the threat of patriarchal violence. Its circular logic asks the community to shield the boy from unbecoming what he was always meant to be: a man who objectifies women, who assaults women, who rapes women—because women have no future, no time, no tautological defense to save them from always already being destined to a present of violent remembrance.

Its very simplicity the phrase promises a masculinity unchanged, protected from the pressures of feminism. This is where the tension resides: in promising that boys will continue to enjoy the freedom of unencumbered sexual access to women—boys will be boys—the culture is saying that it is wrong to ask boys to consider themselves as different than they are destined to be as part of the structure of patriarchal dominance.

And then, are we surprised that privileged white men are surprised? Are we surprised that they get defensive, enraged, or cry; that they close ranks around the idea that boys will be boys?

#Metoo is many things, but regarding this it scares men. And it should. It scares them because it breaks the self-perpetuating cycle of masculinity, shrouded in silence (the silence of male witnesses, fellow students, overseers, administrators invested in maintaining the ‘reputation’ of an institution or patriarchy itself). It breaks the self-indulgence of masculine impunity.

In this moment when the past threatens to return seeking vengeance, the boys will be boys defense probably now feels like a trick, a slight of hand. If boys will be boys is no longer the rule, then should the men who were boys who sexually assaulted women be grandfathered in, so to speak? Do they get a pass because the rules have changed?

They were just using women then like boys used women then—boys will be boys—and now that those women are speaking up, what do we tell them? Sorry? You just missed out on the #Metoo deadline. Your abuser was just a boy being a boy?

It’s a question of time. When we say that boys will be boys we are asking the boy’s future to exist in perpetuity, an ever extending future through which all of the boy’s past actions—but particularly the bad ones, the violent ones—become justifiable because they were fleeting moments of boyhood en route to future manhood.

These conversations manage who has power over the duration of the pain of sexual violence. The psychic wound of existing only as a youthful mistake, all the while seeing the boy who was being a boy become a man unburdened by the trauma of a past that must be forgotten in order for that man to maintain power, to remain successful, to continue to achieve. We pay little attention to the time that that man, in his youthful neglect, robs of a woman. The time she will never have back.

Men have promising futures and lifetime appointments, women have regrets, and silence, and a life of remembering that night as if were yesterday or today or tomorrow. This is the logic—the promise—that #metoo is disrupting.

Reverberations Between

Völuspa’s latest music video, “Miss You Too,” is legendary. Like getting lost in a story that you know has to be true, and yet, can’t be. Directed by Ash Peters, who also features as the film’s butch lover, the visual range glides between perspectives, desires, ritual. The reverberations between. We get the sense that we’ve been here, there, before. In another life, perhaps?

At first glance, “Miss You Too” seems to depend on oppositional pairs. We see references to the Knights Templar (and thus to the Crusades), good and evil, light and dark. However, these points of difference exist only to be twisted, undone by the butch/femme dynamic that is itself a matter of speculative projection of self as other and back again. This is desire unfolding.

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While film’s most direct narrative reference is to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which itself remits to Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (1926), in which the decadence of the present is filtered through the sexual fantasies of a woman imagined as dangerous to patriarchal normativity, it also queerly hearkens Picasso’s Les damoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and the projection of masculine desire as an uncontrollable lack. Völuspa’s desire is not achieved through objectification, but rather fantasy, conjured from the intensity of a sound in the memory of a subject undone.

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(Pablo Picasso, Les Damoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. MOMA)

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(Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut, 1999, screenshot)

These tensions unfold as the undoing of individual subjectivity, framing desire as a challenge to the subject-object relationship by asking what of me was always already part of you. What of me was a projection of you of me?

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The sexual fantasies of a woman, here, are not indicative of man’s desire to control, but rather her ability to imagine other worlds, worlds unseen, or seen as the inside of a gaze that knows itself to be only the fragmentary illusion of a singular perspective. This is the mystery, the play on triangulation, reflection, and reversal.

To find myself inside of you, finding you were already inside of me. Does that make us the same? Or different?

There is a moment when the film’s spatial orientation starts to unravel, to rewind, and we start to wonder if what we have seen as “the present” is actually the past, or perhaps, the future, a dream; another in which the film enlivens to color and, again, we start to wonder about that liminal space between, that place that exists between color and something else, the space of dreams, but also, desire.

“Miss You Too” is a narrative of twisting, inverted expectations—bodies, gestures, affects—a narrative that leads to a realization: What does loneliness feel like to you, next to me?

What we have left is the echo: and then, I found myself somewhere in the reverberation of a longing that began before you knew that I missed you, too.

A Language is not a Widget

This short piece just came out in Portal, the magazine of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. I am glad to have had the chance to reflect on the past year’s administrative crazy at SBU, and will be writing a postdata to this text to bring it up to date.

https://llilasbensonmagazine.org/2018/08/27/alumni-spotlight-a-language-is-not-a-widget/

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