March 23, 2012

Attended a midnight premier of Hunger Games.

Granted, not my usual fare. Because I live it, I don’t usually “study” teen culture (save for my Fred work.) I was one of at most ten moms in a palace of 800+ teenage girls (and their occasional boy companions). It was a delight to engage with this committed, bookish bunch, who eagerly anticipated each move, and joyfully cheered on both girl-power and dreamy (if reality-TV-supported) romance.

Which brings to mind a more typical  film experience enjoyed at a more rational hour of that very same day. My colleague, Ming-Yuen Ma and I hosted Campbell X at our Media and Sexuality class, where we are currently teaching Jose Munoz’s Disindentifications about the experimental work of queers of color. Campbell had proven to be one of the real delights a few summers back during our collaborative production of The Owls, flying in from London and working wherever we needed her in support of director Cheryl Dunye’s vision and the work of queer of color cinema more generally. She is in town to premier her new film, Stud Life, at Outfest’s Fusion.

Campbell’s inspiring artist’s presentation made what may at first blush seem as surprising links to the Hunger Games. Most critically is her infectious and generous understanding of influences (from her mother to Ma Rainey,  Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien and Cheryl Dunye). Campbell explained that given that queer people of color have so few images and image-makers to fall back on, her hungry gaze makes over and good use of even the little bits that our culture provides us. And certainly the delight of the many girls of color at the theater (including my daughter) in the moral and physical strength of the female lead(s) in this film must count as one such minor inspiration (it even kinda passes the Bechdel Test). On the second hunger/stud connection, when I asked Campbell her thoughts on Disidentifications she admitted that her cultural work and research of the moment is mostly on the Internet these days, where she currently runs two websites of interest to queers of color. But don’t be fooled, her Radical Film Manifesto includes this advise:

  • Read books. Can’t afford them? Then borrow them/order them from the library.
  • Raid the classics – literature and films.

As it is wont to do, the blogisphere will tackle, pin-down, chew-up, devour, and spit out the story of the phony “lesbian blogger Amina” and her pseudo-lesbian editor, “Paula Brooks.” I would like to enter my two-cents to the fray by speaking as a “black lesbian.” I do not take on this position lightly, as was also true for Tom McMaster and Bill Graber who say they understood some of what was at stake during their lengthy charades as “lesbians.” However I do not do so because I hear this titillating character inside my brain or because I need a beard to write in support of lesbian issues. Black lesbians speak just fine for themselves, and much of what they demand and produce is the possibility to voice their experiences and knowledge into history and culture on their own.

I speak here as a “black lesbian” because when I was teaching my course on feminist online spaces during the Spring, to my surprise and initial confusion, so many of my students did. They were assigned to inhabit an online space for the semester and make a number of interventions there about feminism and anti-racism. Somehow, a significant enough number of them decided to do so as a “black lesbian” that this became a short-hand for us to name a number of online behaviors worth noting here:

  • the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference on the internet, a non-differentiated space where race, class, gender, and sexuality are neutralized
  • the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference for the bodies and lived experience of many humans who are more hegemonically situated
  • these limits so broken, the “black lesbian’s” position authorizes her to raise otherwise unmentionable or outlawed points about race, gender, class, and sexuality online by anchoring these forbidden thoughts to a body that seems to have the right and need to so speak
  • as if we white, straight, male, wealthy, Latino, biracial, bisexual, working-class, transgender, Jewish, Hungarian others don’t already have our own authority to trouble so easily or casually or “honestly” or “naturally” the norms, boundaries, and rules of the spaces we inhabit

Internet studies has thoughtfully and carefully worked through the reasons of the cyber-ruse over these many years, and I hope the blogisphere will find Lisa Nakamura’s work on cybernetic-tourism, or Allucquere Roseanne Stone‘s thinking about “virtual cross-dressers,” to be useful to think through today’s late-breaking fake-news. My own work on the “Increasingly Unproductive Fake,” in relation, in particular, to queer representation and YouTube ironic freefall might also prove helpful.

MacMaster blogs, “I want to turn the focus away from me and urge everyone to concentrate on the real issues, the real heroes, the real people struggling to bring freedom to the Arab world. I have only distracted from real people and real problems. Those continue; please focus on them.”

The problem with this plea, as sincere as it may be, is that popular culture reminds us again and again that men and white people always play better women then women, better lesbians than lesbians, and better blacks than blacks because the real ones are too right, or correct, or left, and in the end, it’s easier to palate difficult issues with irony.

Over the past few days I’ve been teaching my recent writing about fake docs on YouTube to my Media Studies seniors, while thinking a lot about THE OWLS (and reading Trans Theory, more on this below) and chatting with my friend and colleague, Jennifer Friedlander, on her recent writing on art-world scams and reality-TV shams, as inflected by Lacan and Zizek. It’s enough to make a girl’s head swim with delight, below some avenues of flight (please, please, please respond, these ideas are new, and dangerous, and open to change):

While we were making THE OWLS, Campbell X, our “sound-man” (she’s a talented British director in her own right) noted in one of our talking-head interviews (the crew and cast were interviewed across the production about the themes and meta-themes of the film: queer cinema and identity, lesbian culture, aging, and the like) that as an English-woman of Caribbean descent she found it important that the two black characters in the film (played by Cheryl Dunye and Skyler Cooper) respectively, were not NAMED as black in the screenplay. The B-team (shooting the “documentary” component of the film), myself, Mariah Garnett and Rhys Ernst discussed (on camera) with Campbell the productive potential for unknowing in such post-identity moves.

Skyler and Lisa, Sky and Lily, THE OWLS

Skyler and Lisa, Sky and Lily, THE OWLS

How could we guess the complex intellectual, artistic, and political ripples that would surface just the next day upon the visit to our set of theorist and activist Jack Halberstam to engage the cast in discussions of trans vs. butch identity and politics. For it came to our attention that the film’s six characters were also unnamed in relation to their gender/sexuality identification, although, given Cheryl’s interests, the assumption was that all the characters were probably women, who were lesbians, and mostly butch. Just so, it turned out that Skyler chose to play her character Skye, as an androgynous looking but female identified woman, just as she chooses to enact herself.

Some of the B-team, Rhys and Mariah, THE OWLS

Some of the B-team, Rhys and Mariah, THE OWLS

And here the so-called “generational divide” presented itself, on one “side,” the nostalgic celebration of the lesbian or female or feminist, on the other the seeking for gender and sexual unmooring. During Jack’s talking head interview, he identified as “transgenderd butch” and then suggested that trans-people still need to be named (or counter-intuitively moored) because unknowing leaves them unseen, as fresh and fragile and mostly invisible is this position, even as post-trans theory hopes for the differences between performativity and materiality, the image and the body to remain unfastened and unfixed.

Carol, Cheryl, THE OWLS (all photos by Love)

Carol, Cheryl, THE OWLS (all photos by Love)

Which brings the theoretical and political concerns that I’ve been toying with her, most recently, to a certain sort of front and center. Unknowing and unnaming, like any tactics or forms, are only relevant in relation to goals, communities, bodies, and practices. They too must at times float and at others be fixed. While the unknowing of race is liberating for Cheryl, Skyler and Campbell, the unnaming of trans silences for Jack, Mariah, Rhys and Deak Evgenikos. The ironic free-fall I’ve been thinking about lately, the place where the difference between the “real” and the “fake,” the known and the unknowable, the fixed and the uncertain are indeterminate is an unproductive place of muddle (if perhaps fleeting fun) until it is attached to something that matters: a stake in the future. A stake, which signifies the hard, mean and cutting over the soft, drab, and unmoving (of say the anchor).

As we discussed in class yesterday, while it once seemed enough to work towards a future where people learned that there was a critical distance between themselves and the “objective” or “ideological” productions of dominant culture, this knowledge, so obviously secured in what Friedlander identifies as the contemporary audience’s “knowing very well but even so” is not enough if it occurs in isolation, as an end in itself, unlinked to a body, a movement, or best of all, a project of becoming.

Lisa and Campbell, THE OWLS (photo by Love)

Lisa and Campbell, THE OWLS (photo by Love)

Whereas in my recent writing I had been wanting an anchor (to the “Real,” or what Zizek calls “the shock of the truth”), I now reconsider this to be an attachment and a commitment to a dream of a better reality.