Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Notes on reactions to MJ's death

I started compiling some notes on the reactions to Michael Jackson's death four weeks ago, and then never came back to it. (I had an exam to prepare for, a move coming up, and, you know, life. And so I forgot about it.) Here are those notes, since they'll otherwise just sit, unread.
  1. If discussions on Facebook and at softball (with other graduate students, mind you) are any indication, the response to Michael Jackson's death has been incredibly polarizing: among those who care too much and those who care not at all; those who find it newsworthy and those who wonder why we've suddenly stopped paying attention to Iran. (There is, of course, a minority of people who don't seem to think we need to fit one model or the other.)
  2. The people who decry all the attention seem to characterize the response to MJ's death in terms that seem like Bourdieu's notion of the 'carnivalesque' - a debased space of excessive affect and grotesque expression, the lowest of low cultures. (And, I would add, a hysterical space.) It's at once a liberating space of enunciation, on the periphery of culture, and a mode of containment by hegemonic culture - ejected from the center but nonetheless under its regulatory power. Importantly, the gesture of placing something within the carnivalesque marks it as illicit, and so both an object of repulsion and desire. It's also, as Gael Sweeney notes, a particularly apt model for theorizing the relation of ghettoized cultures to the middle-class mainstream - white-trash and black pop-culture in relation to the white norm.
  3. Charges of the grotesque and excess have, of course, been levelled against MJ himself for at least the past two decades. In his infamous interview with Martin Bashir, Jackson associates with 'taste' ('good taste', implicitly) those objects and artworks which Bashir deems gaudy and tacky. (And so MJ is also guilty of the sins of those who are 'new money'.) Jackson's obsession with plastic surgery and whitening, of course, are both grotesque and excessive, though they're also expressive of another element of the carnivalesque - its normative function in race politics. Just as those who think themselves universal must believe that the occupants of the carnivalesque would reject it if only they knew better, MJ's bodily transformation seems to express how non-whites aspire to whiteness - and how, because the non-white is carnivalesque in its essence, that transformation can never convincingly happen. (Though this is perhaps too obviously and problematically essentializing a gesture for anyone but the most racist of white people to admit of black people. Of white trash, though...)
  4. There's a gendered element to the response, too. As Victoria reminds me, the public performance of women's grief, seemingly irrespective of race, is made to seem less carnivalesque. I'm guessing that the ostensible naturalness of women's affective responses has something to do with this. And while the carnivalesque nature of non-white people is also naturalized, it's strikes me as a more pejorative description - the emotions of women are thought to serve a role in maintaining society that the carnivalsque simply can't and won't.
  5. Of course, white people (men, implicitly, since white women are a great deal more ambivalent when you need to consider their whiteness and womanness as positions that exist in some ambivalence) engaged in the carnivalesque are a far more problematic thing, given that they are the ostensible bearers of a rationalist tradition. (Appropriately, stereotypical funeral conventions, and gendered roles that people are expected to play, illustrate this rational/carnivalesque difference rather aptly.) And a hysterical response marks a rational subject as suspect - someone who should be marginalized, which is especially troubling if that person looks as if they belong at the center, and so makes visible the contingency of a racialized and gendered hegemony.
  6. And so this takes me back to 'guilty displeasure', which I wrote about - and others helped me develop - a long while back. For many of those (mostly white people) who are tired of hearing about Michael Jackson, complaining about his overexposure (or about the celebrity culture that he exemplifies, etc.) has become something of a worthwhile performance itself. And it's not about reveling in the displeasure that one feels toward MJ as it is about the displeasure one feels for the people who have reacted hysterically to his death - especially those people who mark themselves as either traitors to one's race (white women) or one's gender (white men).
  7. I'm overstating my point, I realize. I don't think that, for the most part, this is a conscious logic or even an unconscious one. But I'm trying to trace a tradition that I think these responses mirror in an eerie way.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Al Jolson and Michael Jackson: Blackface/whiteface

George Elliott Clarke on Michael Jackson:

[I]t may make sense to view Jackson as a reverse Al Jolson, the white entertainer who made it big in blackface in 1920s Hollywood.

To which I can only reply: no, it doesn't.

Granted, Jolson's contemporaries considered his blackface performances to be of an anti-racist sort (especially since Jolson was Jewish and so only a marginally white person himself) and he's credited with popularizing jazz and blues within white America. But let's not forget that blackface rarely encouraged anything more than a superficial relationship with its material - that it was a hyperbolic performance that plays up the cool, the illicit, and the sexual aspects of an imagined black community for the amusement of a white audience. And that Jolson's blackface - by virtue of being so clearly theatrical - also served to establish his claim to whiteness by way of contrast: the falsity of his blackface made real and authentic his 'whiteface'. (And while it might have opened doors for black musicians to cross over into white spaces, it also prescribed the stereotype that they were expected to fit.)

It would be difficult, or impossible, to suggest that MJ's whiteface had that sort of reciprocal effect (especially since most people think it delegitimized his blackness) or that he performed whiteness for a black audience so as to make it something they could control and consume. It's difficult to suggest that he had any explicit politics at all, much less to suggest that he thought he was doing whiteface.

A friend told me that it's pointless to keep talking about the "real" Michael Jackson and to impute what his body or his behavior "means", as if it isn't already overdetermined. (To paraphrase Foucault, he resembled his crime before he committed it. If he commited it at all.) All that we really have, she said, is his music. That might be a tad oversimplified, but it's preferable to his unproblematized reimagining as queer revolutionary and anti-racist icon.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Comicboards and the internet forum as liberal state: briefly

I started posting at Comicboards, a website with a huge range of superhero message boards, way back in 1997, when I was still pretty new to the internet. I started moderating a message board about a year and a half later, and I did that pretty consistently for about a decade. (Though, really, my heart was hardly into it for the last few years.) And since I quit eight or so months ago, I can probably count the number of days I've gone back to visit on one hand.

The problem with Comicboards - and it's been a problem since nearly the very beginning - is one that reminds me of one of the problems noted in Wendy Brown's critique of the liberal state: namely, that the liberal state privileges the juridical protection of the individual over that of the community. And that, in fact, it completely elides the recognition of a group identity that isn't specifically embodied in particular persons. (ie. A marginalized group of people is protected only insofar as the individuals that lay claim to that identity can't be discriminated against for comprising it. The group itself is considered to be nothing more than the sum of its parts.)

An example: The time before the most recent stop I made there, I got into an argument with an admittedly embittered poster who asked a question that amounted to 'which is kind of woman is worse - a lying slut or a cheating whore?' Now Comicboards has a system of rules that protect against "blatantly insulting" behaviour. The problem is, this community is 95% male and his obviously misogynistic question was a 'hypothetical' one and not addressed to anyone in particular - a key requirement of the "insult" rule being that there needs to be an individual who is the injured party. On the other hand, my response - in which I called him a misogynist and insisted that he was "crazy-wrong" - was personal and direct. And so the original post was left intact and my responses were branded a personal attack - evidently no one was familiar with my cutting-edge usage of the word "crazy", since it was deemed insulting to his mental state - and deleted.

And what was worse than the utterly twisted logic of determining injury, I think, was that the deletion of the only critical response to the post also, unfortunately, served as a tacit endorsement of misogyny. After all, if insults are against the rules and one post in the thread is deleted for containing insults while another is left untouched, then it follows that the untouched post is not insulting, right?

Another example: More recently, a poster admitted to confusion over the vague intimation of racial solidarity expressed by the Redskins' Jason Campbell over the death of Steve McNair, both of whom are/were two of only a small handful of black NFL quarterbacks. He wondered why the verbalization of black solidarity was socially permissable when he was certain that white solidarity would be met with charges of racism. My response was to point out that the two were historically overdetermined in very different ways - like feminism, black American solidarity is usually an expression of equality, while white solidarity, like masculinism, has tended to be an expression of superiority - and that there was no reason to assume, much less any evidence that would prove, that Campbell's grief was expressive of racial superiority. (Among other points as to the incomparability of white and black racial solidarity and the NFL that, you'll have to forgive me, are too numerous and long to list here. And probably too boring.)

And that response prompted one of Comicboards' managers to sincerely liken Campbell's words of mourning to those shouted by a gang of ostensibly black supremacist teens that attacked a white family, an analogy that was admittedly "outrageous" but which he asserted was "no joke". That such an ostentatiously racist comparison can be made by one of the site's administrators speaks powerfully, I think, to the pervasiveness of the technology of liberal individuation described above. Given that both Campbell and the teens are asserting some affinity for a community and belonging beyond that of liberal individuals relating to other liberal individuals, they're equally suspicious and problematized by the system's logic, one that's premised on an idea of equality that's ahistorical and can't register the historical overdetermination of race.

Just as a sexist attack on women is not an actual attack for lack of an individual woman who is its victim, "racism" is measurable only within a singularity - the decontextualized events and individuals who have been stripped of the historical and social specifics that actually make racism a meaningful concept in the first place. (And we were told that the internet was going to change everything.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The queerness(?) of Michael Jackson

This article about Michael Jackson and his status as queer icon was recently posted to my departmental listserv. I tend to agree with what it suggests about MJ's victimization by a system of compulsory heterosexuality that he tried to fit but couldn't. (I'm less certain about whether he actually had vitiligo, but his eventually cartoonish efforts to whiten himself through bleaching and surgery go well beyond dealing with a medical condition.)

Among the exchanges in response to the article over the list, one friend suggests that Jackson didn't actually aspire to normativity. I can see why he'd be tempted to say that - through the late 80s and early 90s, a surprising amount of academic writing was devoted to discussions of MJ's ironic embodiments and performance of identity, masculinity, sexuality, and whiteness. It seems fair to wonder why anyone who wanted to seem 'normal' would choose to have his face altered in such a way that it looked inhuman.

But I'm of the opinion that MJ was entirely too conscious of normative white America's ideal images. The problem, and it's the same problem that appears to have informed many of his life's decisions, is that he tried to normalize himself in the way that a little boy would - by exaggerating to the point of parodic and grotesque excess. That is, it would be parodic if it weren't so sincere; and it would be endearing (rather than disturbing) if, like a child, we thought that he was expressing some inner-essence - a masculinity that he would eventually grow into.

And as for 'the queerness of Michael Jackson'? Another friend adds that "Queer also isn't synonymous with deviant, although often, what is regarded as deviant can be included in what it is to be Queer". So failing to be heteronormative does not make one queer - especially in MJ's case where it seems so clear that he wanted to be heteronormative and just didn't know how to go about doing it. No one ever perfectly matches the demands of compulsory hetersexuality, but it's rare that someone who wanted so badly to match it ended up missing the mark so spectacularly.