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fruit of the mundane unrush

November 29th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Danny Paul Grody: In Search of Light (2011)

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me how to make buttermilk biscuits, but we ran out of time. And when biscuits are the thing, taking one’s time—and not worrying about getting flour everywhere—is crucial.

Biscuits are to be given away. One should never horde biscuits. It seems strange that whenever I make them, the twin panhandlers with the crooked knees, the doubles who stand like Cesare emerged from Dr. Caligari’s cabinet, seem to appear at the median on Airport Boulevard near the Greyhound station. I never give them money, but frequently leftovers and often biscuits. The twins never appear together because they seem to be taking shifts. They share a bike. They seem grateful to get food. I always wonder what has happened to their legs, because they stand crookedly. They move slowly. I have never seen either of them ride that bike.

I’ve tinkered on my recipe for some years but have never written it down (it’s a combination of Cooking Illustrated‘s “flaky biscuits” and Southern Living‘s “best buttermilk biscuits” recipes). I think that there are two secrets to good biscuits: (1) freezing the flour after you’ve cut in the leavening for fifteen to twenty minutes; and (2) not rushing it. Flakey biscuits are the consequence of leisure, the fruit of the mundane unrush.

As a young person I had more in common with the things strewn on the linoleum than the stuff on the tabletop. If I only knew then that one day I would like to cook I would have paid more attention, climbed up on a chair to see, even. I remember many bored, chilly Georgia mornings staring up at my grandmother’s apron as she measured the ingredients for biscuits. Handfuls of this and that: flour, powder, shortening; sift it, roll it, lump it. Biscuits smell a certain homey way with shortening. Of course, trans fats are forever and coronary heart disease is ample testament to the fact, so one has to weigh the consequence of olfactory nostalgia: what price, that familiar smell?

Granny didn’t cut her biscuits like I do (with a rocks glass, and without twisting); she made “drop biscuits” by creating mounds or lumps that came out, well, that came out with a perfect mix of flake and chew. I cannot replicate them. The recipe died with her. But mine are pretty good—that is, pretty and good—and they smell right.

What You’ll Need: 2.5 cups of King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, and a few handfuls for dusting and kneading; 1 tablespoon of baking powder; ½ a tablespoon of baking soda; a pinch or two of kosher salt; 2 tablespoons of cold Crisco; 1 stick of cold butter; 1.25 cups of cold buttermilk. And coffee (for sipping while you make biscuits).

“I am in the kitchen in a double-wide facing a stove and oven. The stove/oven is candy-apple red, from the 1950s, and I recognize it is one that my friends Gary and Trish resorted and have in their real, dreamy kitchen, except in the dream it belongs to my parents. My parents don’t really use it, but I like to. To my right is breakfast bar and past that is the living room and two reclining chairs where my mother and father lounge watching a morning news program. There is a protective, plastic covering on the recliners, and when my parents move they squeak. I am kneading and folding dough to make biscuits.”

“Go on.”

“I am worried that the biscuits won’t turn out right, you know, turn out like my grandmother used to make them. I don’t want to disappoint my parents. I think I’m wearing an apron that someone made for me, maybe my granny, I cannot remember. And as I make the biscuits I start to think about how I am becoming the parent now and the struggle of my generation—the exes—and how we are depending on our parents well into our 30s, but here I am this once cooking for them. I don’t know if, in the dream, I am visiting or if I am living with my parents again. Still, there’s much more at stake than making breakfast.”

“Hmm. Making your parents biscuits. Sounds sexual to me.”

“Don’t you think that’s too easy an interpretation, though, too much of a softball?”

“Funny word, softball. Biscuits. Makes me think of—“

“—I know. And I’m a housewife for my parents, the anima anxiety of an only child. If I can’t make ’em babies, I’ll make ’em biscuits, dammit!”


Step One: Stir together the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside. Cut up the shortening into little squares and dump into the bowl with the flour. Put a handful of four on the kneading surface and coat the stick of butter; slice the stick into thin squares and sprinkle over the flour in the bowl. (Note: you do not have to use shortening; you can substitute another half-stick of butter for the two tablespoons of shortening, however, your biscuits will be a little less chewy/spongy.) Now is the time to have some fun playing with your food: squeeze the shortening and butter together in your fingers in the flour, making tiny, thin saucers (about a nickel or penny size). Do this until your flour is full of little leavening saucers and peas. Then, stick the bowl in the freezer for twenty minutes. Seriously: in. the. freezer.

Jack Spicer drank himself to death by the age of forty, which is too bad. Among many things, like media technologies and magic, he wrote of the sporting life, because he started-out as a linguist unsullied by deep structures of Chom(p)sky. From his final collection titled Language: “The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counter-punching radio./And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even/know they are champions.” He wrestled with the word, a lot you know, even giving himself the one-over; the booze was really just lube, in the end, but there’s a point at which you need the friction to re-member. All that forgetting gets you somewhere, you bet, but it’s not the kitchen.

Still, I see myself cutting butter with the women rather than in a recliner next to cousins and uncles watching a match. (Counterpunch.) On Thanksgiving holidays, when I grew old enough to understand the division of social favor, I knew my assigned place was watching football on the floor with the boys while the girls confabbed in the kitchen. Nothing was more boring than watching football on the floor. I would have rather watched my grandmother make meringue, even though that was almost as tedious as the Atlanta Falcons. To this day I don’t care to eat either of them. Still, the shortwave radio was in the kitchen, and I liked to play with its knobs. Jesus sermons and Floyd Kramer, and warble inbetween their stations climbing that amplitude.

Do you know Floyd Kramer?

Step Two: remove the flour-leavened freeze and add the buttermilk to the bowl and, with a spatula or fork or your fingers, get the stuff into a sticky ball. Dump the ball on a pile of flour and, with a well dusted French rolling pin (much better than the American flat roller, which gives you little to no real control or feeling—manual or automatic?) flatten the ball into a rectangle. Then, fold the dough like a business letter (twice from each side), turn 90 degrees, flatten. Only do this one or two more times—if you fold and flatten too much the dough won’t rise into flakey layers. Using a rocks glass or biscuit cutter, cut your biscuits and put them in rows on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Step Three: Brush those puppies with some melted butter (about a tablespoon and a half) and bake at 450 for about fifteen minutes or so. After browned on top, take them out and brush with any remaining melted butter you have and let them sit for about seven or ten minutes before serving.

Here’s a gallery of the most recent biscuit-making session. I didn’t make them for anyone, really, just sensed I should make them. Because . . .

I wrote though Thanksgiving, for the most part. Mostly. At the special moment, about one in the afternoon to the ambient blares of referees whistling, I remembered the boys would be summoned and lumber into my grandmother’s tiny kitchen and she would “say grace.” Always the same, patterned grace, about nourishing bodies and soldiers doing something over there. What is Thanksgiving, really, without young people from the lower classes fighting a war for someone else? (Sucker punch.) Always a war, about who wears the apron and who wears the helmet.

I stumbled across another “found object” blog. Someone discovered a note from his or her father’s desk, a list of “to buy” items for the first, new apartment with mom, penned before she was conceived (or, at least, was gestating). A plate. A sink stopper. A jigger, for Manhattans she supposes. She doesn’t know what a Pyrex dish is—but isn’t this essential, even today, for everyone’s first apartment? She also doesn’t know that a biscuit pan is (or used to be) round.

The handwriting of the found list resembled that of people from my grandparent’s generation. Granny had no use for round biscuit pans because she dropped hers, on a cookie sheet. Times were tight and tough and I can still remember finding books and books of unused S&H green stamps in one of her desk drawers.

At the bottom of the “found object” blog is Spicer’s famous “Letter to Lorca” from 1957, where he instructs the other poet’s poet on fetching the alive from the “garbage of the real,” the garbage of the visible or picture or image, because “that is how we dead men write to each other.”

it’s squander-and-shit friday!

November 25th, 2011 by slewfoot

on gratitude

November 24th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Steve Hauschildt: Tragedy & Geometry (2011)

The machine, the box with blackface and red led numbers and lights, beeped incessantly, the sort of pressing electronic screech that refuses to let you make a pattern in the sound, that willful sonic moiré that comforts; the peace of a patterned rhythm.

“Do you have someone to call, a significant other or loved one?”

“No, not in this state.”

“A friend?”

“Well, yeah. But everyone’s at work.”

“If you have someone to call, now is the time. We’d like someone to be here when you come out of anesthesia.”

“You’re going to operate?”

“It’s likely. This is the time to have someone here.”

Three years ago the nurse’s certitude was, in the end, thankfully dismantled with an exception. I didn’t have the operation. Hours later, the screech was replaced by a rhythm, not of beeps, but of the shuffling feet of friends in and out of a antiseptic room. Friends who, I hope, never get see my hair that dirty again.

I am thankful for my loved ones who are determined to make rhythms and forge patterns out in the blaring-Nons of the past, and the gaping nothings sure to come. Without you, I’m just a dead turkey.

separation anxiety

November 21st, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Active Child: You Are All I See (2011)

Five days in a city that loves, that doesn’t loathe as a matter of habit, thriving on an industry that turns on a suspension of surveillance and ample chers and darlins and babys like gravy, can make you wonder what you’ve traded in for health and regulated rhythms and a steady job. At least for a few days. New Orleans can get in your blood, and not like Las Vegas or Orlando like some forced, Oliver Stone virus of paranoid hedonism or policed happiness respectively (fantasies of blind enjoyment, foreplayed disordered order), but a dis-ease of tolerance. A temporary disease-cum-ease, at least: “I can’t believe it took us an hour for coffee,” I found myself saying to friend after a sojourn in search of coffee. “I can’t believe I just complained about that,” I said to myself quietly, angry at my complaint. “This is Louisiana.” I should know better; I should listen to the rhythms I once felt living in the state (-of mind). I came around, eventually. And just when I let it in and was ready to stay forever, it was time to go.

It’s easy to find solace in cynicism, and I’ve got barnacles of the stuff encrusted on any number of cognitions and nerves, some sad ganglia in the groin too. But I do love New Orleans; I love that there is soul somewhere in that tourism, something deeper than slot machines or a desert or . . . blue-dyed water. . I love Chicago and Denver and New Orleans. And parts of Maine. I love the creek bed behind mind grandmother’s house that is now squatted by a strip-malled grocery store. I will let myself love some cities and places and not be clever about the beloved. It’s permissible to love a place crammed with people, even. And there is something in a people or their vibrancy released of the usual or mundane orders that is genuine, even when a dollar is crammed in a shoe resigned or habituated to dancing.

New Orleans was a comfortable lap (at least for me) for seating a conference, the strangest of things that professions and politics have created and attended, this weird, mondo-klatch designed for the visual spectacle of a particular economy (of knowledge, of power, of money, of unrealized sex).

As I do this gig more and more, I find myself enjoying, increasingly, those who dress well—and I mean that in many senses. If ideas are attractive, why not align the senses “all the way down?” It’s a military fashion show, you know? (a very crypted musical nod, I know.) And this in a city that rewards stylistic risk coupled with a relaxing of the defenses. The cultural context made it easier for me, this time, to detach a bit and observe and enjoy the conference for what it seems to be for me at this moment of my career, which is now fully woven into my life, and that’s a life that cannot be fulfilled by a career but which is enriched by it nonetheless: a conference is a huge, ever pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the ultraworld.

That much, that last bit, is also musical joke that has an idiosyncratic relation in my mind to Hegel’s understanding of the “world spirit.” (I really don’t know what Paterson means by “the ultraworld,” though I’m pretty sure LSD was at one point involved in the coin.) The association is neither here nor there for you nor important except for the weird realization for many of us that conferences are not only economies of exchange but organisms that reckon with change—with mortality. When I started attending them as a graduate student, I viewed the academic conference as a smorgasboard of “free” (though ot really free) food and booze and a kind of star system that circulated celestial bodies. The annual National Communication Association meeting is certainly that—in so many ways—but from the vantage of middle age no longer in the same way I had supposed. Some years ago I started to recognize the heart of the pulsation shifted to something memorial, a kind of life-tracking device functioning centrally for some and peripherally for others, but functioning just the same: multiple cohorts are growing old together and using the conference as a way to re-member and re-center over the auspice of the idea.

The promise of the auspice is often (if not routinely, as a matter of mutation) perverted. This is the function and dynamic of governance, to argue over the character of the mutation; for example, the administration inevitably emerges at variance with the membership. As with the rave or circuit party, so with the professional convention The Burkean barnyard bubbles up, often over the spectacle of policy, this year in the name of “civility” or less publically, crass careerism and stupidity, then (re-membering) last year prestige, next year I predict entitled nihilism or apocalypticism (the jargon of the meta-meta, matta matta . . . or as I overheard a senior scholar intone this morning, the excluded third or “turd”). But this ironically consequential prattle really runs cover for the maturing attendee, for the central conversational labor: we are growing older, wending toward a dying, and we want to matter, at least to each other. Growing old together. Children produced and reared/books seemed to dominate our conversations.

My friends and I talked repeatedly about petered partying. About not going out to drink. About staying in, getting rest. About tiring over the reindeer games.

Conferences are machines of recognition. The observation seems trite, I know, but in the setting of New Orleans this demand really was starker and more interesting to me, even fascinating because of the mood that this particular city inspires, a mood of cutting through the crap, almost like a high school reunion in a decade or two after the graduation year: how complex have ways become to ask for love and to say to others “you are loved?” Conferences are combines—projection zones and screens, and its off-sites and friend-only dinners and no-hosts spaces of relational identification (against).

“But, I phoned ahead and they said there was space for 200.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t expect 400 to show up,” he responded. Overhead.

Underestimated. There is a “soul” to this, after all.

There are many stories to tell, and three, overly-disclosive paragraphs that I have just deleted.

Still, what a strange and beautiful thing this last conference was. I will be thinking-through its experiences for some time to come. I suppose my point here is that I think many of us who went to the conference assume, going to a professional meeting, that these are professional endurances. That is, well, that is the rhetoric we produce about them (as I said, “Ugh. And so the circus begins.”) But deep down you and I know—the you who know me through school—we know that these things are major life events, extremely significant, sometimes potentially traumatic and increasingly operatic. As an academic, we have to reckon with the fact that we invest so much in our professional lives that it becomes central to our lives—and this is why location, mood, and the rhythms of the host city are so important.

Perhaps this is why so many of us were talking about, feeling about, how much this particular conference in New Orleans was good and moving and loving and important. The fantasies of the city were implicated—I don’t think superficially—in our conference experience, in the traumatic and deeply consequential event of Katrina and the disastrous Nation State’s response to it and our feelings about ourselves and this city and its mood and our orientation to recognition. And why so many of us want to avoid the conference next year in Orlando. It’s as if our personal lives and self-conceptions are at stake. It’s like Disney makes plain the necessary economy of professional fantasy and all the work it actually does to allow us to do the labor of loving we all really want. We don’t want to see those we love and respect in a strip mall.

I didn’t get to spend time with those whom I admire and love and respect enough in these past days. I left wanting and I felt guilty for not seeing or doing this or that thing with loved ones. But that is a good wanting, I think, and it says something about the import of a city and its soul and its dispositional seat. It says something about my not wanting to go to a conference in Orlando, Florida, as if my time with the admired and loved would be cheapened by the con- and pretext. That the auspice of the idea would be somehow cheapened by completely retreating the necessity of the spectacle and the dollar (a observation I would make similarly about Las Vegas).

Still, these unordered musings begin, for me, the thinking of bodies in place. It’s not something I’ve really dwelled on in the past, since my focus as been on the moorings of professional stability, which do not so much depend (at least initially) on place. I’ve chosen a line of work for which the choice of rest is not mine. Even so, seated in a city I love (Austin, indeed!), I recognize that place (geographical culture) now has a purchase on me it hasn’t had before—at least consciously. Travel has a new meaning. And I’m starting to reckon with that in ways I’ve never really done before. This is, I think, a dimension of the subjectivity of settling, of emplacement. Of disposition.

I’m realizing, I guess, that where I meet my far-flung friends has an impact on relational contact, on professional stead, and the situation of stranger encounter.

a tale of two perversions

November 13th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Georgia Fair: All Through Winter (2011)

For the intellectual heir of Jacques Lacan in France, Jacques-Alain Miller, “perversion is when you do not ask for permission.” Such and observation is shorthand for a distinction between jouissance, human enjoyment or a kind of pleasurable pain impervious to or beyond representation, and desire, which is founded on a question (what do you want? what do I want?). Perversion is characterized by a relative disinterest in others, only the act—a kind of pure act—that invites charges of obscenity. Perversion calls the law, broadly conceived, into being; where there is perversion, there is discipline . . . there is a spanking, and increasingly perverse spankings are becoming public. Spankings are delivered along the inseam of permission and permissibility: For example, in Mike Nichols’ 1967 masterpiece The Graduate, Ben comes to realize his desire at the moment his seducer appears to transgress the rules without asking. “For god’s sake, Mrs. Robinson. Here we are. You got me into your house. You give me a drink. You . . . put on music. Now you start opening your personal life to me and tell me your husband won’t be home for hours.”

Mrs. Robinson: “So?”

Benjamin: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”

Mrs. Robinson: “[chuckles] Huh?”

Benjamin: “Aren’t you?”

Despite George Michael’s claim that “everyone wants a lover like that,” it’s true in the diegesis only for Bancroft’s brilliantly played character. The spectator identifies with Ben’s desire (“is this what I want? do I like this?”) as Mrs. Robinson appears to enjoy his questioning (much more than any sex act; it’s not about sex, or rather, it is about sex but not concerned with the sex act). In this way the perverse act is staged for us in cinematic fantasy: it’s not that Mrs. Robinson truly wants Ben to make love to her; rather, it’s Ben’s reaction and attempts to bring the rules to bear on the situation: this is not supposed to happen; this is inappropriate; this is wrong. What Lacan teaches us about perversion is that Mrs. Robinson is not enjoying the promise of seduction, but the staging of the wrong itself. Sexual pleasure, if it occurs, would be incidental, a spin-off like Tang for space exploration. Indeed, from the perspective of the pervert, Mrs. Robinson is only bringing about Ben’s enjoyment of her, beyond his desire, and is in some sense envious of the desire (that this, the questioning) he has in the moment. Strangely, desiring is a kind of limitation, it puts guardrails on enjoyment, it helps us to “pull back.” Mrs. Robinson cannot “pull back,” and despite appearances, is at some level envious of those who can question and forge limitations, like Ben. And at the same time, she sees herself as channeling his enjoyment—that which is presumably associated with the rules, that which is presumably open to her because the guardrails are off.

This week, given the priapic plights staged by Penn State: The Movie, for the thinker interested in psychoanalysis commentary almost seems compulsory. The topic of pedophilia, however, strikes at the heart of psychoanalytic understanding and locates psychoanalysis’ rhetorical weak-spot: in providing an explanation for the violation of our most taboo of cultural taboos, those relatively unsympathetic to psychoanalytic insights can easily find such insights morally objectionable themselves. Or, to put it plainly: it’s taboo to talk about the taboo. Discussions of pedophilia that say too much—that say something other than blanket condemnation—are somehow odd apologias for perversions, or participate in scope of perversion itself. That, too, is true, hence the title of this post. And the strategy of approaching the issue of perversity obliquely, at a slant, is for good reason ,because talking about the taboo similarly courts misunderstanding if not outright condemnation.

Unless, of course, one is a “journalist.”

Indeed, the overdetermined, culturally sanctioned way to discuss perversion is perverse itself: to discourse on pedophilia, I must first and foremost condemn it in the name of human decency. This is not to say I don’t agree with the spirit of condemnation. Although I would stop short of pathologizing perversity as such, pedophilia is culturally forbidden form of perversion because it is morally reprehensible, and for reasons easily adduced, principled and consequentialist. Even so, this obligatory opening gesture (“pedophilia is evil!”) is itself perverse if one understands perversity is also, first and foremost, wrapped-up in a complicated relationship between jouissance and the law. Two quick examples will suffice, the first from my own recent past experience as a scholar.

Some years ago I was a blind reviewer for a manuscript that purported to be a content analysis of the website of a famous pedophile/pederasty advocacy organization. The conclusions of the analysis were, it seemed to me, obvious: the website’s rhetoric made claims about the “rights” and civil interests of boys, who have been systematically disempowered in Western culture, and this organization promoted and protected boy’s rights. The arguments made by the website were consistent with the defensive claims of pedophiles with one exception (that children are seducers, a common claim made by pedophiles). I rejected the manuscript on scholarly and moral grounds. As scholarship, the essay seemed rather pointless. But the essay was not pointless in other ways; the moral objection I raised was that the point of the scholarship seemed to be its motive,enjoyment. The authors were “getting off” on slumming around in pedophiliac rhetoric. For the authors, despite a sense of detached scholarly objectivity, the motive deployed to justify such “research’ was moral: “we have to understand how perverts think in order to stop perversity!”

The irony of my rejection of the manuscript was that it was particularly righteous (the editor never asked me to review a manuscript again because of this righteousness). We might even say that I took some pleasure in naming and denouncing the enjoyment of others as obscene; in castigating what I saw as a perversion of scholarly mission I was, in my own way, also engaging in a kind of perverse enjoyment—I got to embody “the law” and deliver the judgment of indiscretion and moral violation. And that observation begs the second example easily, NBC’s pedophile-busting reality television program, To Catch a Predator.

For about three years (2004-2007), show host Chris Hansen made his a household name by busting would-be sexual predators lured to parentless homes by of-age teens or young adults pretending to be 12-14 year olds. For me, the show was excruciating to watch for a number of reasons, but the most glaring was the obscene enjoyment of Chris Hansen himself, visibly delighting in the painful righteousness of meting the moral law (which, viewers were told, were followed by the police after Hansen got to confront the “suspect” on camera). Despite ratings, the show was eventually cancelled because, NBC claimed, “sexual predators” were now well aware of the show and its methods and were becoming harder to “catch.” I think the show was cancelled because of the mounting criticism and, in my view, its fundamental obscene character. The show was inescapably perverse in its staging of a sado-masochistic reality: the sadistic predator is revealed to be a masochist, Hansen becomes the law-giving sadist, and so on. Perhaps the most disturbing detail here is that the decoys were of legal age, entrapping rhetoric to the contrary, and although few will admit it, often times the spectator felt sorry for the would-be criminal! Therein is the complexity of perversion as cultural entertainment (examples abound in horror films that get us to feel something for the evil anti-heroes).

These examples—of film, of scholarly blind review, of To Catch a Predator—represent perverse acts on both sides, behaviors that are classically perverse because they are premised on a kind of unwavering faith in either the jouissance of the Other or the Law (I’m only doing what you want me to do; I’m only following orders). I hope they serve to illustrate how all of us are capable of obscene enjoyments, how we all can do perverse things or participate in the perverse. Such daily perversities, however, are premised on behaviors and nothing fundamentally essential. There are some people in our society whose subjectivity is perverse, however. These folks are very rare. And in psychoanalysis, these are the folks we say harbor a “perverse structure.” All people are capable of perverse acts; a very few number of people are themselves perverse. The pedophile is the most stark example of an individual for whom perversity is a core disposition.

Of course, space prevents any thorough or technical discussion of perversity as a structure that is, in rare cases, pathological. Pedophilia is perhaps one of the most vexing “diagnoses,” since most people do not have the capacity to understand it in an empathetic way, and this is because we are structurally “neurotic.” Here’s a quick thumbnail of the Lacanian take on the perverse structure: most people, paradigm persons, undergo two processes or formative transformations in childhood, “alienation” and then “separation.” Collectively these fly under the term “castration,” which in general just means having one’s self “cut off” from the mother-child dyad as one unit, becoming “two” (or really, becoming “three,” since the mechanism of the cut off is a third other).

According to Lacan, each process or, better, “event,” concerns a symbolic paternal figure (a second parent, irrelevant of sex, can function as the “symbolic father”). The first process, “alienation,” is when a child learns that he or she is not the same being as his or her mother and, more importantly, that s/he is not supposed to be or allowed to be. It is the moment of hearing “no” and understanding what it means for the first time—coming to terms with Jagger’s observation that you cannot always get or have what you want. To be alienated is to understand prohibition, to understand what “no” means.

Understanding “no,” however, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll mind the prohibition. Of course, because the “no” is usually scary or accompanied by a threat, most children do. Minding the prohibition, accepting it, is the second step termed “separation.” We’ve all seen this with “separation anxiety” in toddlers, yes? There are certain kids that cannot possibly part with mama. Kindergarten is, in many senses, a pedagogy of separation (and this, of course, requires the life-skill of sharing). It is with the understanding that comes with separation and absence that we learn the basic life-skills of exchange and substitution. So, for example, take the Peanuts character Linus: he cannot part with his safety blanket and sucks his thumb. These are substitutions, or transitional objects, that presumably help him to deal with a separation from mother or the maternal body. Regardless, the end result of successful separation is symbolization, fundamentally an economic relation premised on substitution (exchange, transaction, etc.). And for Lacan, the symbolic is the law as such, broadly construed.

Most of us are neurotics: whether obsessive (most academics) or hysterical, neurotics have undergone both alienation and separation. Together, these events mark the completion of “castration,” whereby one is prohibited and separated from the maternal bosom and thrust into the world of social (or symbolic) relations. Prohibition, that initial “NO!” asks us to give up our unbridled enjoyment of mama in exchange from something else—the symbolic world represented by speech. Desire comes into play at this point in terms of questioning: “Ok, I cannot have mamma for myself. What, then, do you want from me? What do I want?” Without language, we cannot reflect on what it is that we desire. Enjoyment represents the satisfaction of our drives—eating, shitting, screwing, touching ourselves—and these things we learn we cannot do whenever we want. We give up our driven impulses with a little self-restraint to be social creatures, and “let go” only in socially sanctioned ways. Desire functions, in a way, as a limit to enjoyment; the guardrails, as it were.

Now, the psychotic person never goes through alienation or separation; this is a person who never understood “no.” Psychotics are often very easy to spot (especially if you do any sort of online dating!). The trickier character is the pervert. The pervert is in a kind of developmental purgatory or limbo (although I wince at using that d-word): she has heard and understood the prohibition of alienation, she gets the “no,” however, she has no way of symbolizing it or understanding (internalizing) its meaning. This is why structural perverts are very good at leading what appears to be a “normal life,” indeed, why some may never commit perverse acts: law is reckoned with, it is felt, it’s just not established or firmly emplaced. To use a computing metaphor: it’s like knowing how to code HTML, just not being able to do it or not seeing where you’ve missed the backslash or typed the wrong coding. Or rather, it’s being able to follow the rules perfectly but not really caring about the end result; it’s following the rules/code itself gets repeated, over and over, almost compulsively.

There’s a lot I’m not going into here (for example, the symbolization of the “maternal phallus” in the fetish, the realization of “lack,” and so on), but the gist, I hope, is clear: the pervert can enjoy but cannot desire because s/he lacks the symbolic resources to desire. The pervert does not ask questions, or as Miller puts it, “does not ask for permission.” And so the pedophile emerges as a person who knows, very well, that what he or she is doing is not socially sanctioned, appropriate, and so forth, but does it anyway—not because it is taboo, but rather, to bring the taboo into being. What’s at stake for the pervert is the law itself, the law as such, the invitation for the paternal, a deep call for understanding, at some level, what the “no” means or is because s/he cannot.

Sandusky is not only a textbook case of pedophilia from the behavioral (viz., DSM) standpoint, but from a Lacanian standpoint was well. He went to great, elaborate lengths to create an environment for his victims—troubled boys whom, predictably, are looking for father figures, who themselves are calling out for the alienation/separation of primary and secondary repression. From the pervert’s standpoint, he is doing what the child wants, bringing the law into being. This is why, according to Fink, the cultural fantasies of unbridled enjoyment are really a ruse for the pervert and the horrified observer: Sandusky is racked with anxiety, and by repeatedly restaging the trauma of prohibition he is making the Other—the Law—exist. That he may “get off” in the company of the boys is really not the purpose; however strangely, the pedophile sees himself as a liberator, letting boys enjoy themselves. Yes, this is twisted, but it’s only this twisted thinking/feeling that begins to explain the compulsory character of perverted acts (I would be remiss not to point out that there is also some empirical brain research that suggests there are serious differences in the brains of pedophiles, but what that means exactly is not yet understood or proven in any satisfying way).

I’ve gone into the differences between structural perversion and perverse acts because one can beg the other. Often, our response to perverts is also similarly perverse, and I think we would do well to recognize the point of convergence in righteousness and our rush to absolute condemnation and judgment. As Size (damn autocorrect) Zizek notes of “fundamentalists” in his recent How to Read Lacan, the religious zealot’s conviction “does not concern facts, but gives expression to an unconditional ethical commitment.” That unconditional, blind commitment to some principle or law is perverse because at its core is a sort of painful delight—enjoyment—in proclaiming the law, thou shalt not! It’s Chris Hansen busting would-be sexual predators, or my blind-reviewing self condemning scholarship as trash. It’s the subtext of the current media orgy reporting on and condemning, in nauseating detail, the crimes committed by Sandusky and, we worry, school administrators in covering it up: in the zeal to win at any cost, the “perverse core” of collegiate athletics is revealed in its complicity with the obscene and heinous.

The two perversions, then, are these: the perverse structure of pedophiliac subjectivity, and the perverse response we have to that subject. One begets the other. One kind we might feel is justified—and frankly, it is. But we should not ignore our own complicity in this strange, warped economy that would keep enjoyment at bay, since the very fantasy of “busting a pedophile” allows us to approach enjoyment just the same, albeit from a different direction, from the higher ground of moral righteousness. This is, of course, not to excuse or condone either type of perversion. It is to say, however, that we need to be more critical of our consumption of this story—and the zeal with which is it being covered. We cannot help ourselves, like watching the scene of a car accident. But, still, I guess I’m saying we should not exempt ourselves from obscenity at the heart of controversy. Again, I come back to Jagger: “I shouted out/ who killed the Kenndys/ when after all/ it was you and me.” One is right to be suspicious of those who proclaim most righteously the evils of Sandusky, just as we are the religious zealot who condemns “fags” to hell. Sandusky will be brought to justice, I just want us to be wary of how much we ourselves enjoy seeing that. It too easily can snowball into a moral panic (pedophiles under every shrub) or righteous movements that create even more victims.

At the risk of perversity, here’s the moral: Dehumanization is the most terrible perversity of them all. Or, you know: two wrongs don’t make a right.

it’s synth-pop friday!

November 11th, 2011 by slewfoot

on misogyny and “the black man’s hour”

November 7th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Sigur Ros: Inni (2011)

A forth woman will step forward today to report that she was sexually harassed by a presidential candidate at 1:30 p.m. A friend and colleague at another university alerted me that she was expecting a term paper today from a student who would be arguing that this candidate is a “victim.” This news got me to thinking about Susan B. Anthony.

As is well known—er, except, perhaps, by public high school students in Texas—black male suffrage was established in the 1870s with the 15th amendment. Support for the amendment split the “first wave” feminists into two camps: those who refused to lend their voices to the reconstruction legislation because it did not extend suffrage to all and those who supported the amendment as a kind of incremental progress toward universal equality before the law. These divided efforts would also split into federally focused and state focused strategies for women’s suffrage. It would take over another forty years to establish women’s right to vote in the United States with the 19th amendment (and shortly thereafter, establish an age requirement for voting too).

Anthony and Stanton’s famous opposition to the fifteenth was met by other voices, many suffragists but also a number of vocal misogynists, that it was “the black man’s hour,” meaning that women should “wait” until their proper time. In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to argue such arguments were shortsighted, however, we have to remember that each historical moment is more complicated and knotty when viewed from the crises of the future. After the Civil War, one can only imagine that in the late 1860s either a state or federal approach seemed viable—we celebrate all the suffragists for their strivings. Ultimately Anthony and Stanton were right (on political, legal, cultural, and theoretical grounds), but that’s not to discount those suffragists who agreed with the strategy of incremental progress: they took that inch, and although it took too long, the mile eventually came.

Today the phrase “black man’s hour” can be understood as shorthand for the ideology that underwrites it: the superiority of the male sex and gender and the secondary station of woman, whether “natural” or “cultural.” Even writing such a statement seems absurd, and yet, we can certainly discern the ideology at work in contemporary politics: taking the admittedly facile representations of the mainstream media as a symptom, on the right, “black man’s hour” references a commitment to the natural inferiority of women in arguments for a better world, while on the left the phrase references an investment in the cultural truism, however unfounded, that we gotta work within the system we got. As a rhetorician through-and-through (although I do not throw out notions like “truth” and so forth, my moorings are constructivist to say the least), it’s often difficult for me to limit my thinking to the level of MSM jockeying and take this discourse on its own terms. I firmly believe “seeing is believing,” and that visual regimes participate in the hegemony of patriarchy at a pretty deep (that is, early-in-childhood) level; this is to say, I think gender is lodged at a structuring, epistemological horizon of understanding. I recognize such a view is provocative, and I’m happy to discuss that, but even so, let me briefly take up the implications of the superficial (the rhetoric of reportage) to make a larger point about presidential candidate Herman Cain’s harassing proclivities, a candidate who is slowly being revealed as a straight-talker whose refreshing candor is actually buoyed by a sense of male entitlement/exceptionalism (the direct links between masculinity and an ideology of exceptionalism, of course, need not be elaborated after Bush II).

It hasn’t taken long, of course, for self-identified “conservative” pundits to step forward to suggest the allegations of Cain’s sexual harassment is racially motivated. Last week Ann Coulter’s Cain-raising on the media circuit garnered the most attention; she suggested not only were the charges born of racism, but that Republican “blacks” are far superior to Democratic “blacks” because of the scorn they must endure to be conservatives. As the bile duct of the RepubliChristian unconscious (Marx’s observation about Hegel’s dialectics being upside down comes to mind), we shouldn’t be surprised Coulter would say something so (ironically?) racist. Still, as Ronald Martin’s CNN editorial details, pundits have been giving voice to the “race card,” saying what politicians already in power cannot say. Even Cain has suggested as much himself, and after this afternoon’s press conference with the forth accuser, I expect to hear more of it.

The suggestion here, of course, is that this is the black man’s hour. The suggestion is that the charges of sexual harassment are a deliberate, conspiratorial distraction from the power of Cain’s conservative ideas. How else do we explain the persistent polling suggesting the harassment scandals are still a non-issue among Republican supporters? Early this morning a CBS pollster noted Cain’s numbers are up, and that his “testy” defiance may even help Cain’s campaign. One has to wonder: so, four women claim to have been harassed sexually, to have been inappropriately treated by Cain because of their sex/gender. Four accusers is four too many, of course. Sure, there’s yet to be “hard” evidence released in the media, but it’s just a matter of time. And so, why is it Cain’s supporters are unwilling to consider the plight of the possible victims of Cain’s unwanted advances?

Although there are more insidious forms of ideological machination, at least superficially, Cain’s defiance and his persistent popularity reflects how ideology actually works. Ideology is “overdetermined,” as the story goes, and works in ways more akin to a complex machine of moving parts than conspiracy, making critique something like “whack a mole” when one attempts to address ideology as the multi-headed Hydra that it is: one can claim the feel-good mantle of fighting racism while propping sexism. Ideology works this way, sideways, shifting the terrain almost always in the name of The Good. And it’s not just in the case of Cain, in which the rhetorical structure of the “high tech lynching” laid by the Supreme Thomas twenty years ago has been redeployed again; it’s rather a persistent and deep structure rooted in the nineteenth century that argues for equality in the gestures of inequality. Among those of the Left there is a great temptation to suggest “we” are somehow exempt from the ideological machine, but how soon folks forget the presidential campaign of 2008: remember, folks, Hillary Clinton suffered a similar fate, losing a bid for the presidency because it was, yet again, the “black man’s hour.” As bell hooks and countless cultural critics have argued both inside and outside of the academy, one cannot fight misogyny or racism or class disparity without recognizing their deep, interlocking and mutual implication. This is why Anthony was, in the end, right to resist supporting the fifteenth amendment back in the 1870s: equality is a total horizon, not merely a sum of discrete parts clamoring for recognition.

its synth-post-punk friday!

November 4th, 2011 by slewfoot

carnEVIL 2011!

November 1st, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Pale Saints: In Ribbons (1992)

In 2002 I started throwing an annual costume party, first at my home in Baton Rouge and now continued here in Aus-Vegas. I’ve always thought it was a good time for friends and colleagues to mingle (and merge); like Mardi Gras, Halloween is a holiday for collapsing hierarchies: kids get to be adults and demand treats from other adults; adults get to regress to childhood again; girls get to dress like hos; and boys, well, boys get to dress like girls. Not that any of these transformations doesn’t already happen on a daily basis (just ask my colleagues how childlike I can become at any mention of a 9:00 a.m. meeting). The longer I do it and the older I get, the more I like to turn over the theme to those more younger and creative than me. And this year is proof positive this is good judgment. As a co-host, I’m really only the DJ with party favors (that is, lighting)—the real creative genius behind this year’s party is Rob Mack and Ashley Mack (no relation except that, um, they are geniuses).

This year’s theme was “carnEVIL,” to be interpreted however one wished. The living room/dance floor was transformed (with the aid of crafty tablecloths) into a big, red top tent! It looked amazing, and made for a fantastic dance floor once the fog machine and lights got spinning. Just beyond that was a Fun House/Hall of Mirrors animated by strobe lights (aka, the pukey-room; also see Herr Gravitron). The kitchen became a glow-in-the-dark Midway Graveyard, with lots of strangled stuffed animals hanging on nooses. There was a staging area, and a refreshments area, of course.

Out in the back patio was the biggest surprise: A bouncy castle (a.k.a. the Vomitorium)! The bouncy castle was truly over-the-top and an outstanding hoot (and folks used it, I’m happy to report, without . . . “incident”; wardrobe malfunctions? Yes. Motion sickness? No.).

Perhaps owing to the theme this year, the costumes were both amazing and incredibly creative. I liked almost all of them, but among my favorites: Maegan’s super-creepy “Bloody Mary” costume, which won the award for “Scariest.” Basically, she appeared as a sink and mirror, but when she turned on the light inside her witchy face greeted you (sucking on a sippy cup of booze, of course). I found Camille’s ringleader costume smashing, and we looked great together!

The funniest costume went to the corndog-(non)chomping Bachmann duo, who temped everyone on Saturday with their corndogs—rubbing them on their faces, each others’ faces, the faces of strangers. Them corndogs really got around . . . and the pair cinched (or clenched?) the “Funniest Costume” award. There’s too many good costumes to mention here, so, I’ll invite you to live vicariously through the photo gallery here. Suffice it to say at some point in the evening I stopped taking photographs to protect the guilty. If you were there, you know what you saw. If you weren’t, well, you’ll just have come next year—the tenth annual costume party bash DJ-ed by yours truly, and sadly, the last to be hosted by our creative party geniuses, Rob and Ashley. Until then . . . .