Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ageism, Nudity and Sexuality

The story goes like this: somewhere in this world, a 65 old woman declares on tv her wish to be a porn star. Everybody laughs at her, including people her age. There's just something 'unnatural' about a 65 old wanting to show her naked body to everyone, and even more troubling, while engaged in sexual intercourse. It's hilarious and yet sad, I'm being told, that such things make it on the public agenda.

But why is it so? What makes us see this woman's quest as illegitimate? What sends those shivers of disgust throughout our young bodies? Is it the fact that she's 65 and her body looks, well, old? Is it the fact that beauty means firm, cellulite-less and wrinkle-less? Is it the fact that at her age, women should be decent grandmas, where decency means 'no sexual allusions whatsoever'?

I was told I'm twisting everything. Do you think it's natural to see an old woman making sex on tv, I was asked. I'm puzzled as to why I shouldn't see it as 'natural'. I'm not a big fan of sex on tv or of any type of porn whatsoever. In fact, I'm quite against it. But this does not mean I cannot question the underlying assumptions and worldviews that make us mock the woman in this story. A while ago, the Globe and Mail ran a series of articles about elders and their life, including their sexual life. The articles did raise the issue of society's expectations and norms for 'proper old age behavior' - and those norms do not include either nudity or sex.

Andrews (2003), writing on the 'calendar ladies' phenomenon, argued that:

"the notion of middle-aged woman as sexless is a 20th century one; the origins of domestic, middle-class womanhood as a negation of sexuality can be traced to constructions of class in the emerging bourgeois culture (as opposed to a working-class or aristocratic culture) in the first half of the 19th century" (2003: 387)

This process consisted in creating a 'class' of 'proper women', differentiated from the 'improper ones', associated with sexuality and promiscuity. Needless to say, this bore heavy racist tones: white-decent women were the respectable mistresses of the house, of the domestic, while black-sexual women were the temptation of the flesh, of lust and of carnal sins. While many of the themes of this discourse of feminity and sexuality have been displaced, sexuality and nudity remain seen as the privilege of the young.

In her analysis, Andrews (2003) believes that the discourse of sexuality has been dislodged throughout the various public culture sites pushing the boundaries of our acceptability. While my theoretical self agrees with her macro view, my everyday life self, confronted with the story above, wonders about the long way from acceptance of (what may be perceived as) alternative art (think the calendar women, for instance) to everyday understanding and evaluation of our own subjectivities and of the others.

References: Andrews, M. (2003) "Calendar Ladies: Popular Culture, Sexuality and the Middle-Class, Middle-Aged Domestic Woman," Sexualities 6(3-4): 385-403
Photo credits
: Sukanto Debnath

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Feminism and Academic Thought Routine

In 1991, communication scholar H.M. Newcomb wrote:
Part of the problem here is that in the tradition of the humanities, in their contribution to the human sciences as opposed to the contributions of what we generally know as social sciences, one too often feels compelled to write 'as if' one's claims are stronger or larger than they actually can ever be. It would be wise for many of us to write more tentatively, but editors have a way of suggesting that those who hesitate are lost already, and unworthy of serious consideration (p. 44)

An interesting point, vastly popularized by post-modernism's insistence on the impossibility of definite knowledge or meta-theory. Yet, post-modernism itself needed to 'state' things to be heard out. It's almost as if we need to be determined, harsh and compelling if we are to be heard.

I find it almost impossible not to think of the feminist critique of reason: men state things, women apologize. Men think, women feel. Genevieve Lloyd writes:
The connotations of 'rationality' are of objectivity, abstraction, detachment (p. 165).

And if a statement is objective, detached and logical, then it has to be definite. There's on room for hesitation. And definitely no room for apologies.

In one of my early classes, my feminist professor stopped me abruptly and admonished me: "Stop apologizing", she said. "Stop being so deferential". And believe me, I'm really not a deferential person. If anything, I evaluate my colleagues through this lens: she's not there yet, I say to myself, because she's too deferential to authority.

But exactly what makes an academic authority? What makes good academic work? Back to square one: big guys state things. And, if you do not state them, you are told you should: this will show that your thought becomes valid, that you finally developed your 'own' argument. After all, a phd is all about bringing 'your original contribution' to the field. But how can you bring a contribution if you are hesitant?

Many female academics I know have often complained about the academic routine: it's all about stating things, about egos and authorities, about crucifying the arguments made by others. Never about cooperation and collaboration, always about proving wrong (hey, even constructive criticism may fall into this).

So I hesitate: I like to make statements. But I also see them as provisional. I like to point out the inconsistencies - and 'like' here comes from the fact that I have often moved forward in my thinking exactly by thinking through these inconsistencies. But I also remind myself there's no 'perfect argument' (and yes, it is painful when it comes to your own work...). I'm not sure I want an entirely apologetic academic culture, paralyzed by relativism. If anything, I think this relativism has got to Marxism and almost killed the only strand of critical thinking left in academia. But I am not sure I want an entirely proud academic culture, unable to question itself and to hesitate.

Could this be why I never seem to get published?

Lloyd, G. (2000) "Rationality" in Alison M. Jaggar and Iris Marion Young (Eds.) A Companion to Feminist Philosophy. Blackwell Publishing
Newcomb, H.M. (1991) "The Search for Media Meaning" in Communication Yearbook 14, ed. James A. Anderson. Sage Publications, pp. 40-4

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Empowerment: What exactly does that mean?

Empowerment is the word of the day in the academic setting. People empower themselves in everyday life, by resisting the structures of oppression. Computer users empower themselves by resisting the given softs and hards and creating new things. Consumers empower themselves by choosing not to give in to advertising. Women empower themselves by wearing high-heels and make-up for themselves, and not for the male gaze. And the list goes on and on...

Empowerment is posh. I'm not sure where it came from, but someone should do a genealogy of the concept. I'm willing to bet though that Gramsci's notion of 'hegemony' and Foucault's notion of 'resistance' played quite a big role in boosting 'empowerment. Michel De Certeau famously popularized the idea of 'strategies and tactics' in everyday life power/resistance.

But where resistance has sense, empowerment fails to convince me. In a recent research on gender in virtual worlds, I felt that the empowerment one can take out of being in virtual environments in respect to one's gender identification can - at best- be described as subjective (both in terms of recognition and effects) and limited. Such empowerment hardly has any impact on the material infrastructure or the given norms of the social environment.

In fact, I am not sure 'empowerment' is the right word: just because you take your moment of pride, of liberation, does that empower you? Does that allow you to act differently in the world? Does that give you a say in decision making that affects you?

Say the people in your community suspect for some time the industry next door is bringing a plague to them: cancer. Say they took their precautions, they resisted the industry in every way they could - but the law, the institutional setting places constraints on them. Say the experts find out that indeed the industry next door is polluting and can be linked to the unusual incidence of cancer rates in this commmunity. In my mind, when your life is endangered by man-made things that can be removed (at a cost, I agree), that's quite a huge thing. So, in an ideal world, people have the right to life (and this includes, to me, the right to a healthy life). What happens? Well, nothing so far. We need more reports. We need more info. We are unsure that the link is indeed causal, yadda-yadda, blah, blah. Read the rest for yourself here.

Exactly where is the empowerment? Yes, maybe (but maybe not) you have the means to move out of that community. Maybe you resist the industry next door, you refuse to buy their products, you lobby against their polluting the environment. And yes, you blog, you post comments on stuff, you participate in the town hall meetings, cause - hey! - that's your moment of power, the exercise of your democratic, civil rights. Does that empower you? I must have the wrong definition of empowerment in mind, cause it seems rather futile and helpless to me...

Photo credits: Dominic

Friday, February 6, 2009

When Racism Interpellates...

Althusser's discussion of ideology is notoriously complicated. He sees ideology as an on-going practice in which we all participate. By 'practice', I think he means our lifestyles, our behaviors, our perceptions of things.

The complicated part comes with his argument of 'interpellation'. Fiske (1991) describes this argument through a parallel: you're on the street, and someone says "Hey, you!". You may turn around - cause you understand what was said. Or you may refuse to turn around, cause you understand but nobody talks to you like that. In either case, you understand the interpellation and you react to it (There's the third scenario, when the words and the speech act mean absoultey nothing to you). In the first case (you turn around), you become complicit. In the second case, you resist. Fiske says this is how ideological interpellation works.

The other day, I've heard the story of an aquaintance from Europe who went to visit her daughter in a Nordic country. Upon her return, she said she was deeply disappointed with the Nordic country: she saw so many drunk women on the streets. She was also unhappy with all the drug-addicts roaming freely on the streets. And, last, but not least, she was upset with the presence of all 'those Somalis' on the streets of the Nordic city, as it looked like the entire Somalia has been moved there.

Yes, I know that racist interpellation too... (Shame one me!) I admit to being interpellated by racism in that way - and responding to it. I went to buy a phone card, and the guy in the booth asked me "Where are you from?" (Well, I was speaking English in a Nordic country). I responded unwillingly (always these questions annoy me), and, without thinking twice, I asked "Well, were are you from?" Now, might look innocent to you, but the guy in the booth was of the different skin color, and at that time, I noticed those things. I noticed them as part of the 'order' or 'muddle' (to use Bateson's famous metalogue "Why do things get in a muddle?") - in other words, my vision was racist, so I assumed a priori a black guy cannot be a nordic.

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized the stupidity of my question, but by then it was too late. The guy was kind enough to smile and respond naturally: "Well, I'm from here". And that was the end of it.
But the incident stayed with me. I realized the racism behind my vision: I saw black. And black and Nordic do not match. It is often said that white racism is inconspicuous, because you never think of places or people as being white, and in that case, I think it was true. It never occured to me that I'd question someone's 'belonging' (now, I have problems with belonging as a concept...) based on skin color - but I did it, and I did it through a routine and unconscious vision framing what I saw in the world.

So, I cannot be too tough on the lady who was bothered by the Somalis on the streets of the Nordic city. What bothered her, I asked myself? The same interpellation of racism "Hey, you, there's black in the white place. Black is different. Is not 'from here'. It 'muddles' things". It muddled her expectation of a Nordic city as a white city.

Now, here comes the irony - or the paradox. The lady in question has been married to a black guy. Her daughter, whom she was visiting, is herself black. So, I wonder, how can racism still interpellate the mother in this way, when her own daughter has mostly likely been objectified by racism in the same way?

References: Fiske, J. (1991) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edition, London & NY: Routledge
Photo Credits: Brad Florescu

Monday, February 2, 2009

Made in US and O Canada

The new economic stimulus package proposed by the US president has been seen in Canada as promoting a 'buy-in-US' protectionism. Not that Canadians are not exhibiting their own nationalism: only recently, a New Brunswick school was ordered to resume singing O Canada each morning. A Very Public Sociologist blogs about the "British Jobs for British Workers" discourse. It looks like we're back to the old national(ist) protectionism!

Or maybe we're not back - maybe 'nationalistic thinking' was always there, lurking in the background and we chose not to see it anymore because of this ultra-optimistic globalization rhetoric. Nationalistic thinking means we think about the world as divided into nations, each nation with its own state - a state meant to protect not the citizens (regardless of their characteristics), but the citizens-as-nationals, the nation. "National pride is commendable, but we can love our country without all standing to attention beneath a loudspeaker," wrote a Globe and Mail reader in today's newspaper.

Well, I never thought any type of national pride is commendable. But as I grew older, I came to realize that societies need mechanisms of cohesion, and rely on nationalism as one such mechanism. I'm still not sure such mechanisms need to encourage the 'in-group' / 'out-group' (or the Us vs. Them) thinking, but I'm still thinking this through. National pride - exactly why is it commendable? That we are all buying into it - in various degrees - has been quite well researched. We know that our 'buying into it' has more to do with the education system and mass media, then with our 'inner needs'. National belonging is not a metaphysical thing - take a child born in the Czech Republic and raise her in the US, and she'll be an 'American' (Caveat: of course,the child has to look like the mainstream definition of the nation, otherwise she'll be rejected by the group for the visible difference).

We do buy into nationalism, and we do think there are good versions of it (like the reader quoted above). We seem to believe that nationalism is benign if kept within reasonable limits. Exactly what those limits are vary of course with the circumstances: economic crisis in sight? Well, depending on whose 'national' you are, American nationalism is bad and Canadian nationalism is good...

Nationalism is not benign, but always problematic. Nationalism is a discourse: it divides the world into nations. It creates the boundary of 'our-group', links it to a territory and a state, and ascribes it an objective reality. Like any discourse which creates boundaries of difference - racism, ethnocentrism, sexism etc. - it is problematic. And particularly dangerous in the ways in which it creates different ethics for the in-group vs. the out-group. And particularly dangerous in the ways in which it becomes normalized as a method of legitimizing actions and behaviors in our everyday life interpretation of the world.
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