Saturday, 30 May 2009

Goldilocks (aka Amanda Holden) and the Three Bears.

Last night (Friday 29th) I was privy with millions of other television viewer’s to a camp spectacle on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent. This spectacle was called The Dreambears. Three twenty-something chubby gay men camping about on stage doing all manner of pirouettes, arrières, and changement de pieds; all this is choreographed to the Weather Girls Its Raining Men. Why is it worth blogging about? My answer is not The Dreambears attempt at ballet (or burlesque or Bob Fosse) which of course is fine rather, I’m bothered by the way in which prime-time television negotiates and mutes the subcultural aspects of their bear-ness in order to make gayness hyper-legible to the audiences through terms they are more familiar with. The Dreambears are not off the hook either since they are in part complicit in their own camp debasement as the first prime-time bears. This legibility in their performance is achieved through the erasure of the bear’s subcultural aspects that then work to contain the potential of bear masculinity to be viewed as completely ordinary, unfussy, and ultimately boring for TV. The way Britain’s Got Talent erases the bear, except in name, was manifold in three strategies that disrupt the bears’ literal masculine definition of themselves as the man’s man version of gayness. Here are a few observations.

Strategy 1. Make them look as camp as possible. Dress all the bears up as Daffyd from Little Britain in ultra tight PVC shorts and sparkly union jack vests. The Dreambears mention the costume department’s role in bringing us this tired vision. As an extra note one should observe that known gay presenters on television (the BBC holy trinity of Graham Norton, Dale Winton and John Barrowman) are compelled to wear sparkly, glittery, reflective, and garishly patterned suits as a semiotic articulation of their prime-time gayness which otherwise remains unspeakable.

Strategy 2. Deal with their fatness. Since the bear’s chubbiness is considered to be erotically appealing within the subculture it’s important to disavow this central aspect of bear identity by making them look silly as fat bodies out of place. Put them in camp outfits five sizes too small and make them do ballet that ought to do the trick. Did I mention that the connection to the Weather Girls It’s Raining Men is not just about music also but also corpulent excess?

Strategy 3. It’s really got nothing to do with sex. Bear subculture is also predicated on a sexual hierarchy based on age, size and ways of communicating within those hierarchized relations through terms such as ‘daddy’ and verbs like ‘to paw’ and ‘to maul’. In the first instance, The Dreambears look like cubs to me and have not yet graduated to being fully-fledged big daddy bears. If you didn’t know already bears tend to be stout gay men, preferable hirsute but not essential, accommodating of a wide but hierarchical age range (which is then divided into cubs, otters, wolves, polar bears etc). An oversimplification of their self-promotion would suggest that bears often shun the apparent narcissistic, sissified, slender, fashionable, and consumption-led gays that have often come to represent the stereotypical gay as if bears themselves were not just as regulated as the next queer.

What ITV’s strategies do here (but not forgetting the complicity of The Dreambears) is to work against the potential for these prime-time bears to destabilize normative assumptions between certain alignments of homosexuality and masculinity. In turn, Britain’s Got Talent confirms what people already think they know about homosexuality on television, light entertainment in particular, that is, its only meaningful and acceptable as risible de-sexed camp spectacle (with soaps being the alternative). Something Richard Dyer once wrote is applicable here – “In taking the signs of masculinity and eroticizing them in a blatantly homosexual context, much mischief is done to the security with which ‘men’ are defined in society, and by which their power is secured” (167). It’s precisely this potential for mischief that Britain’s Got Talent attempts to contain in its camping up and desexualisation of a modern gay subculture.

Though Amanda Holden does make a good Goldilocks!

Reference: Richard Dyer (1992) ‘Getting over the rainbow’ in Only Entertainment. London: Routledge.

(Photo credits: frame grab; pinups mag; permissions)

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Irigaray and Sexual Morality II

The second and final part of Joost van Loon's discussion of Irigaray and sexual morality in which he thinks more about the implications of her work for conceptualizing virginity.

For Irigaray, virginity is not merely an tool of paternalism, but also a ‘potentiality’, or promise of (female) autonomy. There are two forces at work here: objectification, in which virginity becomes commodified in terms of exchange value, and (inter-) subjectification, in which virginity becomes an assertion of being-in-the-world that is articulated as ‘existent’, i.e. ‘there’ (
Dasein), which is always a being-with the Other (hence the inter-). The potentiality of virginity is of course not restricted to women only, but because in patriarchal systems, the integrity of women’s bodies is always denied (one could say this more positively: female subjectivity is superior in terms of its capacity to develop relational identities), it becomes a more acute political and moral issue. In this sense, a purely objectified virginity does not affirm the potentiality of integrity, but instead of its exchange value. An inter-subjectified virginity, however, affirms something quite different: a notion of ‘integrity’ that corresponds with what Heidegger referred to as ‘authentic being’, one that acknowledges its full dependence on an openness to ‘otherness’ (for Heidegger, this otherness was Being itself; for Levinas, it is God). In her essay, Irigaray (1999: 108-110) does not go that far; she merely equates this notion of virginity as authentic being with ‘autonomy’ in relation to the Other (which is neither being, nor God, but a (human?) person). However, when reading this in terms the broader framework of her philosophy it becomes obvious that her sense of autonomy, or self-determination, of women is not an advocacy of the liberal concept of the unified Subject, but a mode of being that always-already acknowledges that it is not One (in-dividual).
The inscription of the rights of the couple in civil law would have the effect of converting individual morality into a collective ethic, of transforming relations between genres within the family, or its substitute, into rights and duties concerning culture in general. Religion could then recover its meaning as a relationship with the divine for both genres (Irigaray, 1991: 202).

Irigaray’s project, an advocacy of an ethic of ‘being two’ (e.g. Irigaray, 2000), could be seen as one of the most sustained attempts to relocate a feminist politics within an ethical domain of intersubjectivity, or between-ness. ‘Sex’ for Irigaray, is the most universal and pervasive difference, that transcends the either or of biological essentialism and social constructionism. Her ethic focuses on responsiveness: listening, silence, touch, communication-between. This also entails a negative dialectic, rather than moving towards full assimilation into a discourse of totality, she suggests that ethical being entails an entering into a relationship between two in which the two remain two, that is, to some degree incomprehensible to each other, i.e. ‘we must renounce to be (as) the other’. This communicative action based on non-appropriation is thus not Habermas’ ‘reasoned’ deliberation, but an intimacy that enables both me and you to return to ourselves.

Irigaray’s ethic is thus radically concerned with ‘openness’ in terms of relational being. It is remarkable, however that whereas she understands this openness in terms of relational identity, she does not want to accept that relational identities thus also imply a dependence. Instead, her insistence on autonomy points towards a ‘singularity’ that never fully accomplishes its relationality. Perhaps it is a latent individualism in her philosophy that prevents her from this final radical move – to declare an ethic of intersubjectivity which involves a virginity of both dependence and openness, rather than either/or. Only when I realize that I need you, can I begin to see that you need me; that, surely, must be the inaugural moment of between-ness, of a movement-towards. However, her thinking does enable us to resist the temptation of equating intersubjective between-ness with an Oedipal desire for becoming-One; intersubjectivity based on both dependence on and openness to the Other entails a respect for limits and an attentiveness to remaining two.

Irigaray, L. (1987) This Sex which is not One
Irigaray, L. (1991) ‘The Necessity for Sexuate Rights’ in Witford (ed.) The Irigaray Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 198-203
Irigaray, L. (1993) Je, Tu, Nous. Toward a Culture of Difference. London: Routledge.
Irigaray, L. (2000) To Be Two. London: Athlone.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Irigaray and Sexual Morality I

Joost van Loon explores the implications of Irigaray's conceptualization of sexual morality.

It is through the female body that Luce Irigaray wants to conceptualise sexual morality as more than an inscription of patriarchal discourse. Using the example of Antigone, she contrasts a paternal concept of law as grounded in the authority of the state with a maternal concept of law which is highly attuned to ‘natural rights’, that is, in communion with the primordial being of ‘the soil’ and kinship-lineages (Irigaray, 1991: 199). Following a theme that she already set out in her earlier works, she contrasts the violent singularity of ‘phallogocentrism’ with the multiplicity of the feminine, as ‘the sex that is not one’ (1987). On this basis, she discusses heterosexual intercourse in terms of a violation, which objectifies the female body as a commodity within the dual structure of the law of the father and the logic of capital.

Whether or not one agrees with the implicit ‘essentialism’ of her account of ‘sex’, it does adequately describe the impossible situation many women find themselves in, in contemporary patriarchal capitalism, as far as maintaining an in-dividual, integral notion of self as subject. The point she stresses is that as soon as a woman enter into a sexual relationship with men in terms of the masculine form of engagement (i.e. objectification), there is an implicit violation of integrity, even if this takes place with her full consent. This leads her to consider virginity as a domain of struggle, rather than an ‘overrated virtue’ constructed by patriarchy (as liberal feminists prefer to see it). She therefore advocates ‘the right to virginity’ (1991: 209).


Irigaray, L. (1987) This Sex which is not One
Irigaray, L. (1991) ‘The Necessity for Sexuate Rights’ in Witford (ed.) The Irigaray Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 198-203

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Translation Deficits

Joost van Loon examines the 'translation deficit' between Actor Network Theory and Science and Technology Studies.

Although Actor Network Theory (ANT) is now a well-established, albeit often misunderstood, domain within the social sciences, it has not travelled very well beyond Science and Technology Studies (STS). Using a phrase from Latour himself, one could argue that ANT suffers from a 'translation deficit' when it comes to social science research beyond STS. It is not very interesting to dwell too long on the reasons for this translation deficit but it helps to distinguish three possible factors:

  1. The radical nature of the philosophical roots of Latour’s ANT which are an unusual mixture of William James’ radical empiricism, A.N. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and Friedrich Nietzsche’s accomplished nihilism (or relativism as Latour prefers to call it).
  2. The fundamentally empirical nature of ANT-analyses, which forces one to do ANT rather than talk about it.
  3. A reluctance of social theorists, in particular, to separate critique from prejudice and thereby to start taking actors and action seriously. That is to say, when attempts are being made to ‘export’ ANT-analyses across boundaries, there are significant numbers of gatekeepers blocking the passageways like security guards at airports.

As Latour himself has insisted over and over again, Actor Network Theory is deceptive and therefore perhaps not a very good phrase to describe what is done under that heading. It has led to the suggestion that it is merely a theoretical position that aims to describe networks of actors and in that way it has been interpreted as another version of network theory along the lines of, for example, Ohmae and Castells. In order to avoid such confusion, Latour has toyed with a number of phrases that better describe what ANT might be, such as ‘sociology of translation’ and more recently, ‘sociology of associations’ (Latour, 2005). I prefer Annemarie Mol’s label: ‘empirical philosophy’.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

What Jamie Did Next…

Joanne Hollows blogs about some recent developments in the world of Jamie Oliver.

Back in April we wrote about Jamie’s Ministry of Food and since this point we’ve noticed a couple of developments that people interested in the impact of the tv chef might want to keep an eye on. First has been the low-key (by Oliver’s standards) launch of Recipease, a mini-chain of stores which, according to Jamie’s website, are ‘beautiful food and kitchen emporiums which are able to sit within neighbourhoods and serve people really well’. This ‘special project’, with its emphasis on locality and community, was launched on the back of Ministry of Food and initially seems to fit with the campaign to get people cooking healthy foods. The shops offer cooking classes and instructions and assistance on making quick and easy meals from the produce on sale there.

However, the similarities between this and Ministry of Food quickly begin to unravel. Unlike the Ministry of Food centres for which Oliver tried to attract public funding, these are business ventures. The locations are far from the working-class Northern towns of the series: the shops have so far been rolled out in the extremely affluent Southern sites of Battersea and Brighton which offer far greater opportunities for profit than Rotherham. The cooking classes (which last approximately an hour) are priced from £17.50 for ‘Knife Skills’ to £35 for ‘Get Creative: Pasta’. The audience for these sessions appears to be far from the ‘welfare dependents’ that featured so heavily in his initial campaign to get Britain cooking again. What’s more, the stores don’t just offer the opportunity to buy ingredients and equipment or learn to cook. While Oliver claims that ‘the main idea is to service you: the locals’, the shops also offer ‘Easy to Go’ where the recipes you can learn to make have been pre-prepared in the form of an upmarket ready meal. In place of the Doner Kebabs from Rotherham’s take-aways we have ‘Zesty Chicken Kebabs’ to take home and pan-fry at £4.45 a serving without pitta or salad (or chips!)

The shops therefore offer convenience foods that were one of the main targets of the Ministry of Food campaign. But, of course, not all convenience foods are born equal. Jamie’s ‘Easy to Go’ range enables customers to consume a little bit of Jamie whom, it has already been established through widespread media coverage, is nutritious and good for us. They also enable the consumers who can afford them (in the high-rent neighbourhoods in which they’re located) to use convenience foods while demonstrating care. As Alan Warde has pointed out, care and convenience are usually seen as antithetical: the former associated with the warmth and personal attention of the private sphere and the latter associated with an impersonal world of industrialized production. However, because Oliver’s star image is so closely centred around the fact that ‘Jamie Cares’ then buying one of his ready-meals enables people to buy convenience food imbued with a higher order of care. This must be reassuring for the residents of Battersea if not for the residents of Rotherham who are represented as having a weakness for a diet of care-less kebabs.

The second development has been the news in the past week that some hybrid offspring of Ministry of Food and Jamie’s School Dinners is to be launched in the US in early 2010, focusing on one of the nation’s ‘fattest cities’. In terms of genre, it appears that the show will break with the kind of format used in the UK as Jamie’s vision will also be mediated by the presence of a co-host Ryan Seacrest (most famous as host of American Idol). How the politics of class – and ‘race’ and ethnicity – will unfold in the US remains to be seen. Ouellette and Hay’s work would suggest that the differences between manifestations of neo-Liberalism in the US and UK and the key differences in attitudes to welfare and the State will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the ways in which Jamie’s moral entrepreneurship is mediated. Its also unclear how Seacrest’s presence will transform the format of the Oliver campaigning documentary (although having heard Seacrest’s voiceovers on ‘Idol Gives Back’, this sounds a particularly scary prospect!) Maybe it will help launch Recipease stores in the Hamptons?
(Photo credit: Downing Street. Permissions.)

Monday, 18 May 2009

And the Winner is....

When we started blogging about linguistics lecturer and fellow CS@NT blogger Dean Hardman's journey into the world of comedy writing we never really expected it to go on this long. But exceeding all expectations (especially his own), Dean, with his script From Riga to Rotherham, WON The Sitcom Trials, the national search for new comedy writers.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Exploring a Neoliberal Moment in Higher Education Today - Joyce Canaan

Joyce Canaan (Birmingham City University) 8th May 2009

This was the last in the Spring/Summer 2009 Seminar Series at the University of Birmingham: Gender and Sexuality: The Discursive Limits of ‘Equality’ in Higher Education.

Joyce Canaan’s paper posed the question: “Are we in a post-neoliberal moment?” Given that it was a late arrival on the capitalist scene in the 1990s, the neoliberal dictum that There Is No Alternative seems exaggerated. And if that is so, then the current fashion by UK Vice Chancellors for “shock-doctrine” in universities offers a moment of vulnerability in which a resistance to its discursive regulation can be mounted.

The situation as perceived by government and Vice Chancellors is that HEIs must engage in market-led competition in order to ‘deliver’ maximally efficient courses for the knowledge economy. This efficiency has only been achieved by a 30 year decline in the public subsidy for universities to the point that the UK ranks lowest in this regard in the OECD.

Canaan’s next question was “why do we keep going along with it”. Answer: because of the carrot of self-actualization dangled before academics to ensure their compliance with the stick of regulation – QAA, RAE, benchmarking etc. These all render academics auditable, and allow the imposition of a neoliberal governmentality which works through a destabilization of established academic practices. And it never stands still, since we are impelled to go through permanent revolution, so that no practices ever fully establish themselves or achieve legitimacy. The ‘second order’ activities of audit take over and construct our very beings as academics. Our professional lives are dominated by the need to discursively provide evidence that we are compliant with the regime.

Canaan offered two thinkers who allow for possibilities outside of the crisis of economic rationalism and regulation: Raymond Williams and Judith Butler. Both question the fixity of the dominant and the supposed natural. Butler recognises that norms are only legitimated by constant citation, and we can choose to stop the repetition. Raymond Williams shows us that the hegemonic provides the basis for the counter-hegemonic, and that the residual can still be reactivated. There is also the emergent – that which a dominant social order represses or fails to recognize. This is the most crucial tool for dealing with the dominant and for allowing subversion, as the emergent seeks new forms or reworks old practices. Bourdieu argues for a scholarship with commitment, and in striving for that, we may create the social conditions for realizing utopias.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Matter of Associations

Joost van Loon explores the 'stuff' of networking.

Last week, I attended a conference in Leicester entitled The State of Things: Towards Political Economy of Artifice and Artefacts, organized by the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy (CPPE), which is situated within the School of Management at the University of Leicester. It was a really interesting conference with a wide diversity of papers and topics. One of the most unique aspects of it was that it turned out to be meeting point between more traditional political economy, Autonomous Marxism, and Actor Network Theory. This produced a fascinating exchange of ideas which hopefully will continue in the near future.

Emma Hemmingway and myself also wrote a short paper for this conference in which we asked the basic question: what is the “stuff” of networking. Below is a small passage from that paper.

Clicking is not networking. This is the hard lesson anyone familiarizing themselves with Actor Network Theory has to learn before being able to move on. In fact, Latour has been accredited as having said that ‘the hyperlink destroyed the network’. In a world where the Internet rules supreme, this sounds ludicrous. The hyperlink, it is generally believed, is the ultimate vehicle for building networks. Facebook is a prime example of this. By a few simple clicks, friends can be added to create an ever expanding database of connected web pages. The hyperlink has made networks easy, fast and instantly retrievable.

However, there is a price to pay. Taking the work out of the network, leaves us with just a net. The net catches and traps, but it does not live. Friends on Facebook are not differentiated; if everyone is a friend, then no-one is. The click destroys the gift. For Mauss, the gift is the inauguration of ‘association’; for Derrida, the gift creates an event. It is not hard to see that one of the key problems of Facebook is that it is extremely uneventful.

What makes the hyperlinked net uneventful is that it functions as an intermediary; a simple device for moving information from A to B without adding or changing anything to the mater that is being moved. There are no matters of concern as far as intermediaries are concerned, only matters of fact. That is, intermediaries do not engender gifts; instead they merely ‘take for granted’. As we are interested in the ‘state of things’, the objection to intermediaries is obvious. Intermediaries make things disappear; devalue them, erode them of significance. Intermediaries do not invest and do not commit anything.
(photo credit: luc legay. Permissions.)

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The Sitcom Trials: the final

Anyone following the blog will know that we've been slightly obsessed with the tale of linguistics lecturer Dean Hardman's rebirth as a comedy genius. His script for From Riga to Rotherham is now in the finals of The Sitcom Trials, a national competition to find new comedy scriptwriting talent. The finals take place tomorrow and Dean's work faces a pretty star-studded panel of judges:Lucy Lumsden (Head of Comedy for BBC TV), Andrew Newman (Head of Entertainment, Channel 4) and Jane Berthoud (Head of Comedy Commissioning, BBC Radio). We, of course, wish him the best of luck (but are now beginning to worry that he might eventually leave us to hang out in some glamorous clique of celebrity Mancunian comedians somewhere in Prestwich).

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Crisis in Humanism III

The final part of the three-part series on the crisis of humanism by Joost van Loon.

Social scientists, as always, were a bit late to catch on. So, when Marxists were still occupying their time with debates about the relative force of structural conditions versus class struggle, geneticists were already ten steps ahead, re-interpreting all that exists as forms of data-in-procession. When humanists finally purged their beloved Birmingham School from Althusserian structuralism, as emblematically performed in a sort of confessional mode by Stuart Hall, no self-respecting biologist attained a notion of the human species that depended on an organic understanding of human being; instead, human being was a mere variation of protein codes.

However, even if social scientists cannot be blamed for not reading biology, they can be blamed for failing to understand the world they inhabit. I am introducing a very delicate issue here. By the time the poststructuralist challenge to humanism became popular in the academy (in the early 1980s), most western nations at least already had legalised abortion. That is to say, the society which social scientists at least are called to understand, had already moved on from an anthropocentric definition of life, to a more functional one. The question is not whether one defines abortion as a ‘reproductive right’ or as a ‘moral issue’ (e.g. Ferree et al, 2004). That is completely irrelevant. The issue here is what the very allowance of abortion means in terms of one’s understanding of what life is. If one accepts abortion, one is faced with a choice to either accept that it is a permissible form of murder (that is killing another human being) – which, in essence, runs counter to the basic premise of humanism (so brutally exposed in Auschwitz) - or that some human life forms are not human enough to qualify as a life form. That is to say, whereas the first option heralds the end of the hegemony of humanism, the second effectively changed the meaning of human life by default (e.g. by referring to this as ‘the fetal life frame’, Ferree et al (2004) are able to present an allegedly neutral account of abortion-debates as index-cases of the state of political culture in Germany and the USA; using or not using the fetal-life frame thus becomes itself an arbitrary choice, which is allegedly motivated by political interests or will to power).

Finally, the death of humanism could and should have been perceived by the social sciences a lot earlier because it was evidenced in the way in which human social forms were being reconfigured. The post-war era is often coined as an era of consumerism, commodification and individualization. All three terms are nails in the coffin if humanism. All three signal some form of dehumanization, transference of the unique centrality of the human being as origin and destiny of reason, to values derived from market-transactions, object-relations and alienation. Indeed, what today is celebrated as innovative theoretical concepts, e.g. actor networks or assemblages, are nothing but descriptors of processing that were already dominating popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The Frankfurt School theorists saw this and cried out in despair, but to no avail.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The Crisis in Humanism II

Part two of Joost van Loon's three-part series on the crisis of humanism.

The crisis in humanism however, has not remained an exclusive philosophical affair. The 20th Century, the century of high modernism, also witnessed a human crisis in terms of the meaning-fullness of life. I am referring here to the existential insecurity that emerges when we are confronted by the possibility of a pure arbitrariness of being. This is when the plebs no longer desire for utopia (because their needs are forever being commodified) – when Nietzsche's brutal historical force of the will to power, is revealed in its bare nihilistic arbitrariness.

This pure arbitrariness of being owes quite a bit to a revolution in biology – when life (already stripped of divine mystery by modern 18th Century science) transformed from being defined as the capacity for self-reproduction, i.e. a cell-based entity – to something that was no longer predicated upon the primacy of the cell but merely evolved as a series of proteins, DNA, RNA, i.e. viruses. I am referring to molecular biology and in its wake the birth of genetics.

The idea of DNA as ‘the book of life’ is an ironic mockery of the mystery of intextuation and incarnation. The mystery is being exposed in a pornographic fashion, as a mere series of protein-based codes. There is nothing to life but long strings of codes, which can be deciphered, taken apart, re-assembled and (in theory) modified. Using the pioneering work of Shannon and Weaver in mathematical communication theory, genetics adopted the model of information-processing as the basic trope for understanding life. Being alive in this worldview, is identical to being in communication. Plato’s cave is turned inside out; there are no ideas, no real objects, just shadows on the wall. The age of genetics is the age of the reign of the Simulacrum.
(Photo credit: King Coyote. Permissions.)

Friday, 1 May 2009

Remembering Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009)

Two brilliant women sadly passed away in April after long battles with cancer. The legendary small screen actress Bea Arthur (1922-2009), whose obituary was of course well publicized, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009), the scholar and activist who revolutionised gay and lesbian studies. Gary Needham and Liz Morrish both pay their tributes to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

It’s now significant that I remember reading Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love (1999) while looking after the grandmother who raised me and who was fading away from (the then unknown) rapid metastasis from breast cancer. I never thought of that affective link between these two influential figures in my life until now. I came to Eve Sedgwick and queer theory on my own in my first year as a postgraduate in Glasgow (in 2000) since it was something that was never taught to me so I never knew what to expect from it, yet, I knew that I ought to start exploring it. Well, I can honestly say queer theory transformed my academic life and purpose, namely the relationship between my identity and what was really the point of being an academic in the first place; a real transformation where film studies (my discipline) was usurped by queer and LGBT studies. I’d probably be writing histories of Italian cinema and obscure movies (not that they aren’t important things to write about) if it wasn’t for the inspiration and insight that I owe to Eve Sedgwick and her books Between Men (1985), Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Tendencies (1993), and Touching Feeling (2003). I’m sure we all secretly have our favourite scholars but Eve was different in that she never seemed to be writing from the measured distance of most scholarship. When she wrote, especially in Tendencies, you got the feeling that a good friend was telling you this stuff. There was something about Eve’s writing that felt more like an act of sharing and the joy of her writing and thinking was not only that it was smart, in fact really smart, but that it was heartfelt and honest. So when I read that on the 12th of April Eve had passed away from the same thing as my grandmother I was deeply saddened. Even though I’ve never met Eve Sedgwick, the experience was as if a friend had somehow passed away; that’s the kind of effect that Eve’s writing has on you. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be the scholar I am without Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. (Gary)

Eve Sedgwick was for me the Martina Navratilova of queer theory, dominating all over the place and queering the disciplines, but mystifyingly, she was not quite entirely queer herself. She leaves a husband of some 40 years. Well, that’s how the straight world might see her, but then Sedgwick’s entire project was to disrupt our expectations and conventional readings, even of the category queer. Perhaps the work which shocked the most was an essay “Jane Austen and the masturbating girl” (1989) which challenges the traditional interpretation of the behaviour of Austen’s characters. Sedgwick was rapidly elevated to queer diva status even as she was reviled by the Right in the US during the ‘culture wars’ of the 1990s. This was a time of divided campuses, when individuals were obliged to take sides. Just admitting to having read Epistemology of the Closet or Tendencies marked you as a queer radical committed to the downfall of Western civilization. Stanley Fish opened up space for alternative literary approaches at Duke and recruited Sedgwick, and she soon gathered around her a group of young thinkers and together they carried queer theory forward to its accepted position in critical theory today. (Liz)

(photo credit: David Shankbone, permissions)

The Crisis in Humanism I

In the first of a three part series, Joost van Loon examines the crisis in humanism in the contemporary world.

The crisis in humanism stems from a slow but insidious erosion of the key principle of modern thought – which Foucault referred to as ‘man and his doubles’. I am simply assuming here a notion of modernity that is based on the centrality of human being as both origin and destiny of reason, finding expressions in the ascendance of man over God, nature and history; the displacement of religion by science, the expropriation of laws of nature and natural resources for industrious human productivity and the subjection of contingencies to self-reflective institutionalised forms of governance and regulation.
In the famous last section of The Order of Things, Foucault already predicted the demise of ‘man’:
One thing in any case is certain: man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge….It is not around him and his secrets that knowledge prowled for so long in the darkness… As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared… then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea (Foucault, M., 1970: 386-7).
According to Lyotard (e.g. the Inhuman), the crisis of humanism is brought about by a particular anamnesis – a coming to terms with the significance of Auschwitz. It is perhaps too simplistic to bring this all back to one slogan, uttered by Nietzsche as ‘the Death of God’ which – for Nietzsche at least – heralded the brief but painful spell of the reign of man (which was soon to be ended by the reign of the plebeians – communism - and then the reign of nothing). Nietzsche was of course referring to modernity. Simplistic – no doubt - but very effective. It is perhaps a bit more remarkable that towards a later stage in his life, Heidegger would recognise more fully the demise of modern humanism and uttered that ‘Only a God can save us’.
(Photo credit: drtchock: permissions)