Do read my new column on the Malay Mail, ‘Sexual dynamics of looking‘, published on 26th June 2014, in which I talk about what it means when women are told not to look at men.
How does a woman walk in a city in the daytime and at night? Does she walk head held up high? Does she think her hair is showing through her headscarf, her knee-length skirt too short? Will that be commented on by someone on the street?
Does she walk under what Shilpa Phadke calls the ‘tyranny of purpose’? Walking from point A to B because she has to look like she is doing something important, like getting into work or getting the food shopping done for the family? Female flaneurs, after all, are less tolerated than men, more suspicious, and often punished for utilising public spaces in the ‘wrong’ way.
If the city, as urban sociologist Robert Park suggests, is “man’s most consistent and the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire,” it therefore an fair argument to say that cities are not made for women. If anything, the city, from its many rebirths and reinventions, is an expression of power and domination that is familiarly masculine in its quotidian manifestation.
This short essay is about several dimensions of women’s right to the city, not least women’s right to mobility in the city. The right to mobility in the city is a major prerequisite to the right to the city, the right to belong anywhere in the city. Women’s mobility in urban spaces is often more complex than that of men. Often saddled with more domestic responsibilities, women are on the move to supermarkets and school runs while negotiating the use of the family automobile.
Looking at women more intersectionally, age, ethnicity, gender presentation, migrant status, socioeconomic class, and (dis)ability makes urban mobility a more complex if urgent issue. We all want to get to our destination eventually. If possible, in the fastest and most convenient way. But different kinds of women and (trans)men are more likely to prioritise safety and accessibility than the average privileged (cis)man.
If women are the more economically disadvantaged in society, they are more likely to do more walking and take public transport. When they shoulder more domestic responsibilities, they make more complex transport-related decisions and may actually spend more time (purposefully) on the go.
Inclusive cities are not merely safe for women. In fact, many cities are not inclusive because of both the deliberate and unintended emphasis on an often paternalistic and draconian notion of ‘safety.’ Safety measures have resulted in increased policing, surveillance, and even total exclusion of certain groups of people from participating in public life. Protective safety measures are also behind gender-segregation in public spaces and transportation. While welcomed by some, such measures address short-term safety, marginalise women, and grant perceived and would-be perpetrators freedom.
Aspects of inclusive cities for women have already been materialised in clean and better lighting in train stations, bus shelters, and underpasses. Well-maintained public toilets for women is another implicit indicator. Women’s safety audits are conducted have been conducted in India, Bangladesh, and Colombia. Privately owned car-free days that are complimented with affordable and physically accessible public transport have been implemented with varying success in Colombia and Indonesia. With all things considered, all will benefit, especially women, in shorter commuting times and distances between home and work, home and recreational pursuits.
Inclusive cities are more than about both radical and ‘common-sensical’ infrastructural adjustments. They transcend notions of gendered ‘safety’ and instead emphasise an engagement with and even the embrace of risk. Not to say that women of the city should put themselves willingly at risk, but rather a discourse on urban inclusivity should consider risk as something that can be managed on individual terms.
The right to undertake risk is part of a woman’s right to the city, an experience that involves encounters with strangers including those that make others feel uncomfortable. In inclusive cities, not only can women walk freely alone without fear but they are allowed to roam the city, be serendipitous and be lost without fear or repercussion.
In the city for women, a woman can sit alone in parks, linger, run, jog, without much diminished fear at any time of the day. Women too can be flaneurs and have the right to loiter. Rather than just prioritise safety and freedom from harassment, women can prioritise speed and convenience of mobility. Women’s mobility is not just about getting from point A to B, but also about social mobility. Greater physical mobility for women is conducive for social mobility and self-actualisation.
There is more to cities than to create them after one’s heart’s desire. For Robert Park, “if the city is the world which man [sic] created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without clear sense of the nature of his task,in making the city man has remade himself.” To this view, Marxist academic David Harvey argues that the city may be the concrete expression of its makers’ values, hopes, and fears. This creates opportunities for the reinvention of cities to better reflect its inhabitants and the reclaim the right to public spaces for the pursuit of happiness.
Robert Park (1967) On Social Control and Collective Behaviour.
Shilpa Phadke (2010) Gendered usage of public spaces: a case study of Mumbai, Delhi: Background Report for ‘Addressing Gender-based Violence in Public Spaces’ Project, Centre for Equality and Inclusion, India.
Carolyn Whitzman (2012) Women’s safety and everyday mobility in Building Inclusive Cities:
Of course I’ve always known that I’ll get to the finishing line sooner or later. But the actual experience of being so near it, half-running/crawling towards it, and overwhelmed by feelings of euphoria and total disbelief, exceeds the capacity of words and description. I submit my PhD thesis on the 27th of June 2014.
I have micro-managed my way towards the finishing line. Like a marathon runner who has organised the provision of snacks and drinks in strategic places, I wanted to ensure that the submission process is as stress-free as possible. I stayed productive all throughout the PhD, (almost) meeting deadlines for my supervisors’ perusal and kept writing and rewriting, punctuated by me rewarding myself with solitary meals and booze.
I accepted the pain that I chose to inflict upon myself but I made sure that stress brought about by de-motivation and procrastination were kept to a minimum. Looking back, I am impressed, incredulous, and grateful that I have made it this far.
The finishing line is nigh and I am wordlessly overjoyed.
First published in my Malay Mail column on 27th February 2014:
A great intellectual died on February 10, 2014. His name was Stuart Hall, dubbed the “godfather of multiculturalism.”
As the tributes by academics made up of peers and admirers alike came flooding in, I thought about the impact of Hall’s work concerning identity and culture on Malaysians.
I believe that some of us, as postcolonial subjects like he was, too can claim to be moved by his ideas and share his vision. But it is his contribution to Cultural Studies as a discipline that has most influenced me as a scholar.
Earlier this year, I bought a ticket to attend a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in June with the hope to meet him.
I did not know that it would become a memorial for Stuart Hall. Hall, who was an erstwhile director of the Centre, championed the much celebrated (and mocked) “Cultural Studies.”
The political influence and notoriety of the CCCS meant that those of us who wanted to study film, television, magazines, and “trashier” aspects of popular culture often sought sanctuary behind the Centre’s authority. A similar kind of debate about intellectual legitimacy is reignited in academia today in its defence of the Humanities.
What makes Stuart Hall so special and unique? It would not be an understatement to suggest that a great intellectual is chiefly a product of circumstances. A Rhodes scholar at Merton College in Oxford University when the empire was crumbling, Hall knew, as a Jamaican, he did not fit comfortably in the staid and exclusionary protocols of Oxford. His work on identities and culture were as much a searing ideological critique of racism as an attempt at making sense of his status as an outsider trying to fit in.
The 1960s was an exciting time for critical theory and its influence on popular culture. Picking up from where the Frankfurt School had left off, the study of mass media was gaining respectability through its associations with semiotic-based structuralism and psychoanalysis.
At the same time, it was a period of total disillusionment with Soviet communism. The British New Left, to which Hall belonged as a key figure, needed a new focus and vision.
The counter-cultural 1960s was a wellspring of possibilities, both political and cultural, and it was obvious that Hall and his cohorts wasted no time. Rather than remain in critical theory, which was (and is) pessimistic in outlook on why revolutions have failed, Cultural Studies in its departure was committed to social change, offering a more positive programme and tools for successful rebellion.
As a scholar whose research keeps Hall’s memory alive, I find his prose electric. Electric in that its forthright style is a stunning example of both intellectual non-conformism and resistance.
And it is defiance of the established intellectual order that would be his greatest gift of inspiration to generations of scholars dedicated to Cultural Studies.
Resistance to hegemonic ideologies about the myth of the nation and national culture was something Hall wanted people to wake up to and participate in. However, it was the very resistance and postmodernism, particularly the latter’s characteristic demolition of hierarchies between high and low culture that Cultural Studies relied on, that contributed to the depoliticisation of Cultural Studies, much to Hall’s dismay.
Today, anyone can select willy-nilly a particular media text, examine it long enough to unlock their own hidden meanings of resistance and say they are doing Cultural Studies. The meaning of resistance can be decoded into anything and in danger of meaning nothing at all.
While this might have upset Hall to some degree, this is the legacy of openness and unpredictability of Cultural Studies as a discipline that we should welcome during these troubled times in academia.
First published on The Malay Mail on 7th February 2014.
When you think about it, most rights have been won by women in Malaysia and all citizens are rendered equal before the Federal Constitution. Malaysian women didn’t even have to fight for the vote. Technically, men and women are almost equal. Needless to say, the margin between the sexes is very small as to be negligible.
It would therefore be a travesty to suggest that men are not allowed to play an important role in feminist activism. In fact, there is no reason to deny men the role of leaders of the feminist movement. Besides, denying men such a plum position would be a form of gender-based discrimination.
Women have dominated the Malaysian feminist movement for several decades and many lessons can be learned from their legacy. But why hasn’t true gender equality arrived yet? The most plausible reason why feminism has reached a stalemate is because of the lack of men’s involvement.
Because the main aim of feminism is to transform men’s views about women, it is obvious that men are entitled to an instrumental role in the movement. Men who hold feminist values can talk to other men with chauvinistic views and change them through the effective deployment of the authoritative male voice. When women’s credible complaints about sexism are ignored unless pointed out by a man, the men in the feminist movement can intervene and act as the spokesmen for women.
Feminism offers men the opportunity to highlight and champion long neglected concerns, such as sexual harassment that men say they also experience. Other issues can also be raised for worthy attention, such as the under-representation of men in domestic work and the nursing profession. An important victory would be the establishment of a ministry for men’s affairs.
There are still risks faced by bold and strong-willed women of being branded ball-breakers and viragos. Men in feminism, most of whom are born with testicles, can bypass these put-downs effortlessly and convey the good word of equality across the gender divide.
When women are afraid of appearing over-sensitive and hysterical about objectification and rape culture, men can step in with their objective, unemotional views. This makes men make the perfect brokers in a society led by unenlightened male dinosaurs who are less inclined to see women as equals. To put simply, men are indispensable to feminism.
The liberal men with feminist beliefs may scoff at the prime minister Najib Razak when he assumed the headship of the ministry of women’s affairs in 2012. But they do so in unequivocal agreement that they are more sensitive about gender issues than the prime minister. This is proven by the fact that the liberal men have female feminists as friends and partners.
As men, they can channel certain skills useful for the women’s organisations, such as rational thought and a strong background in second wave feminism, having read one book by Angela Davis. Men are known to be more assertive in the gruelling world of social activism. Blessed with greater levels of physical strength, men are better equipped to deal with the long strenuous hours of NGO work. These are all valuable attributes that can be put to good use in feminism rather than discarded as stereotypes.
Having more men working alongside female feminists in equal partnership is a win-win situation. Liberal men adore empowered female sexuality and want more women to attain it. Being enlightened and empowered is not about being prudish, because prudery is no more different than the moral conservatism of the Shariah police who wish to curb the civil liberty to sexual expression.
To put it pithily, liberal men with feminist values are very supportive of sexually liberated women.
It is entirely possible that the country can witness substantial progress by putting men in charge of the Malaysian feminist movement. By making feminism more inclusive to men, it will lose its fearsome anti-male reputation and instead make feminism very men-friendly. Women have led the movement for some time now, it is only fair that men be given their turn so that true equality can be achieved.
First published in The Malay Mail on 29th January 2014.
As someone in the business of reading, writing, and reviewing academic articles, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Writing academic articles is not easy and it rarely gets any easier after years, even decades (so I’m told) in academia.
So when someone or a team of authors produces a poor paper, it is quite forgivable but not forgivable enough to be granted a publication in a decent journal or book.
Recently, a dear friend emailed me a copy of a journal article on whether LGBT identities were natural or an “ideology.” The article was written by two authors affiliated with a public university in Malaysia and published in a journal of biological science even though the methods for investigating the object of study have nothing to do with biology or the sciences.
Besides being riddled with many grammatical errors, the article is a weird composite of government propaganda, superficial theology, journalism, and a few scholarly citations. It cites the prime minister’s branding of LGBT communities as a “scourge” and state-sanctioned measures to “correct” these communities so that they become more hetero and normative.
Passages that allude to homoerotic activity from the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah are thrown in for good measure as if an authoritative definition of contemporary non-normative sexuality can be gleaned from them.
To find an answer to their research question, an interview with a “former LGBT practitioner” was conducted in which the informant was asked a variety of questions framed in a pathologising manner (Is your identity a disease? Do you have a “real” type of body? When did you start noticing these symptoms?).
Like a cipher, the informant responds in an obedient fashion, parroting anti-LGBT truisms long debunked by experts, activists, and LGBT communities.
The boogeymen of LGBT discourse—liberalism and human rights—are invoked and mutually reinforce each other in both the literature review and findings, making the study itself redundant.
What is there to investigate when the authors already know their answer before carrying out their qualitative research? What is the point of an objective “scientific” study when they have pre-judged categories like “menace” and “disease” for LGBT identities?
Every argument in this article will laughed out of town by the academic community committed to the field of Queer Theory and Gender Studies.
According to the authors of the article, “LGBT” is at once a “sexual orientation”, a “habit”, “abnormal instinct”, an “attitude”, and a product of the “ideology of free sex.” These contradictory claims seem to be plucked out from nowhere no thanks to a cavalier grasp of concepts.
This academic article is an alarming indicator of how awful Malaysian higher education can be on different levels; from the teaching of students, their research training, the supervision by members of the academic staff, the quality of written work that is passed off as “research”, to the ethos of the researching and teaching members of faculty.
How did such an article manage to be published in an academic journal, a vital currency in an academic career, at all? It would be too easy to assume that the authors are ignorant or lackeys of the government and religious authorities. We can start with the structural problems in Malaysian higher education. The abandonment of the humanities and social sciences in Malaysian universities is a major factor in the production of appalling research.
Poor funding, no thanks to the undervaluing of the humanities and social sciences, has driven away many talented researchers and teachers. Poor funding also means poorer resources for research. Subjects in the humanities and social sciences do not need laboratories and heavy equipment that are worth hundreds of thousands of ringgit.
But scholars of these fields do require generous funding for field research, conferences abroad, plenty of new books, and access to a variety of international journals subscribed by university libraries.
Without access to supervision and mentoring by scholars who have published in decent journals and access to many good books and journals, those with an intention to produce good research will be lost at sea with a broken compass. Structural limitations lead to low research output and ultimately, low academic standards.
However, not all in the humanities and social sciences in Malaysia are doomed. A few universities, some born as fraternity twins with another foreign university, have attracted research-active academics keen on reviving the humanities and social sciences, not least the study of gender and sexuality.
To cite Michel Foucault, there is power and desire in knowledge production. This makes academic knowledge production anywhere, not just in Malaysia, a less innocent enterprise than what many believe. Cloaked in scholarly language, pernicious ideas can gain an air of authority or worse, “truth.” This is why government propaganda masking as research is dangerous.
This does not mean that Queer Theory and Gender Studies are neutral in their approach to gender and sexuality either. They are products of a particular time, place, and people that later developed in a particular, if more globalised, direction. Most are Western in origin and derive from psychoanalysis, Western philosophy, and activist literature that require a reframing from a decolonising lens.
If Malaysian scholars wish to be recognised for their intellectual output in the study of gender and sexuality, they must participate in the existing dialogues, rather than abusing the modes of intellectual production in the service of repressive politics and state religion.
Higher education in Malaysia is treated like a commodity that can be bought and sacrificed at the altar of party politics. And like commodities that have no long-term intrinsic value, it is disposable and destined for the scrap heap once it has served a poorly conceived purpose.
First published in The State on 20th January 2014.
When I lived in South Jakarta, my initial access to the internet was in the nearby warnet, a portmanteau word composed of ‘warung’ (cafe or stall) and internet. The warnet was tiny and had no chairs. Planks of wood were used as benches for a dozen or so computer monitors and their respective processing units. In my daily visits, the warnet would be at its busiest before dusk, when all of its users were working-class boys playing online video games like self-entertaining monads. The oldest of the boys, no older than 18, runs the warnet by collecting hourly fees and stops customers from wearing their shoes inside the establishment.
I often wonder about the lifeworlds of those at the margins of society who are hyperconnected, plugged into Warcraft, Facebook, Twitter, and a seemingly limitless plethora of information online. They, like us who pontificate about the effects of ‘always-on’ culture and the merits of tech detoxing, are similarly bombarded by a world of media excess. We live in an era fast advancing beyond symbolic excess, which was the postmodern. This era, according to Marc Augé, is the supermodern.
In the supermodern, non-places trespass urban spaces with alarming rapidity. Non-places are spaces that have no history, a transitional geographical medium. They are the motorways, the concrete arteries through which swaths of urban humanity spend an inordinate amount of time. Supermarkets and airports are also non-places that house “realities of transit,” where people move in and out at interchanges (where nobody crosses each other’s path) rather than crossroads (where people meet). In non-places, people are passengers rather than travellers, customers rather than consumers.
Augé also recognises that spaces which subalterns occupy—refugee camps and urban slum dwellings—are also non-places. Refugee camps and urban slums are spaces that are denied the markings of history, and belonging to traditional notions of place. Individuals who occupy refugee camps are in transit; they want to be elsewhere. Some slum dwellers choose to stay, but they are forced into transit by developers and the city council. They are often subject to perpetual threats of evictions, condemned to be on the move.
In the current geoeconomic logic of supermodernity, a section of the subalterns—the urban poor and migrant workers eking out a living on a transitional basis—are cyborgs too. The cyborg is a product of the current era: hybrids, a cybernetic organism, a relationship between human and machine. Cyborgs are not a Robocop-like amalgam of human and machine, but rather the lived expression of how machines have become indispensable to the way many humans now live. Humans rely on technology to do things that were once humanly impossible; to move faster, to communicate at lightning speed at greater distances and to more people than ever before.
Media communication technologies have become the protheses that humans both need and want. Such a reliance on media technologies has huge implications on the way media users perceive reality; an example of the imbrication of the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is found in the constructed perception of time. In a media-saturated society, individuals get bored more quickly. With more things to consume in so little time, our attention span is shortened and we become more impatient. Our sense of time and history appear to be sped up. Time itself appears to be constructed by our relation to the acceleration of consumption and excess of media stimulation.
Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory suggests that Foucault’s biopolitics are no longer extant. Power is no longer only exercised directly on bodies, on ‘naked’ life. In lieu of biopolitics, power in the present age is techno-scientific and exercised via technology, making bodies the subject of technopolitics. For Haraway, the cyborg has the potentiality to be an emancipatory subject. But the avenues for the cyborg’s emancipation lie in the subversive manipulation of technology’s original function and the breathing of new political meaning into it.
With or without emancipation, subaltern cyborgs benefit from the fast turnover of media technology. This means cheaper phones, second-hand and brand new older models. But few choose to be cyborg, emancipated or not. The development and manufacturing of everyday technology is linked with weapons and exploitative labour practices respectively. Media communication technologies do not develop out of a vacuum free from the macro structures of global commerce. Often, power relations of fleshspace creep into the online ether, replicating there.
With access to possible emancipatory channels of social media, can the very poor still be subaltern? There have been speculations about whether or not the subaltern can tweet, raising questions about “online self-determination” whereby technical and financial ability can be harnessed to “represent and edit oneself and one’s culture(s) online, and to decide how they will achieve online relevance/visibility/ranking without being overshadowed by more dominant national languages and/or economies.”
In the supermodern city of Jakarta, self-entertaining monads are plugged into videogames that mimic military strategies and fighting. As posthumans, they rely on media technology to fill an attenuated sense of time. Indonesians make up a significant number of the world’s Twitter users. But they are more than just consumer cyborgs. Many Indonesians are also workers in electronic manufacturing factories where they produce protheses central to cyborg subjectivity.
What is the fate of the consuming-manufacturing subaltern cyborg in the supermodern? Will post-human narratives forget her? The case of the warnet boys offers a glimpse of posthumanism in the developing world where technology surpasses the material conditions of the present.
First published on The Malay Mail on 16th January 2014.
The Red Pencil protest on January 4 is more than a political struggle against repressive state legislature led by journalists and activists. It is about the basic right to information to be enjoyed by all and therefore it would be imperative to appreciate where the public is situated in this political struggle. The rest who are not dressed in red should care.
There are three main dynamic entities in the politics of journalism: the state, the professional journalist class, and the reading public. As the ongoing protest against state repression on press freedom in Malaysia continues, readers of the news might not fully appreciate why they should also demand greater press freedom than what is offered in the status quo and why.
We now live in the age of media saturation and excess of information. Lack of media freedom might not seem obvious to the average member of the public who can access the seemingly limitless content on the Internet. What we do not like in the mouthpieces of the government we can turn elsewhere for a different perspective. But this is not enough.
The extent of ministerial expenditure of tax-payer’s money and denial of the public’s right to know is currently a cause for contention. But there are other concerns that deserve the public’s scrutiny: the business deals struck between profiteering politicians and corporations, how much the royalty spends and on what, fraudulent food production practices, and the epic scale of environmental damage and exploitation of natural resources by local and transnational companies and the powers that be who benefit from them. These are but a few out of many pressing issues that the public must know with impartiality and balance.
One should consider beyond the parochial limits of Malaysian party politics and national borders concerning the politics of access to information. Post-Cold War spying and the NSA scandal have also demonstrated that data generated by ordinary users in the border-less ether of the Internet can be mined and exploited. As users, we are also complicit in giving away too much personal information online. The bottom-line is this: we live in a surveillance society where we as the public know little about how much governments and data-mining corporations know about us.
We should not kid ourselves into thinking that greater media freedom in Malaysia will mean that we will have neutral and objective coverage of the news. This will never happen. The professional journalist class and those who work within and for the media have the power to construct news for the public. They are the mediators between events and the public. With the privilege of selecting events for news coverage, they are the gatekeepers of what the public can know. Lack of neutrality in the news, however, does not necessarily diminish relative freedom of information.
The original conception of “the press” existed before newspapers and the professional journalistic trade. It began as pamphleteering and mass printing of ideas to the public, long before newspapers were controlled by the rich and powerful. The basic idea of the press analogous to pamphleteering exists today, in the form of blogging and tweeting. This is the reason why citizen journalism must also be protected from repression and not just professional journalism.
But is a truly free news media really ideal for the public? A truly free news media may indeed open up the news market to independent and alternative media outlets to flourish. In a liberal economy free from state restraint, owners and stakeholders of media outlets are free to define the tenor of their newspapers.
Who will regulate the impartiality and balance of the news media and their commitment to inform the public so that the reading public will be promised consistency and accountability? Is there really an “invisible hand” of the free news media market that will determine ideological equilibrium in news reporting for the public’s benefit?
We must not forget that professional journalism is also a commercial enterprise. Free media also means the freedom to further commercialise media. Media oligarchs are born in the free media market. How can we ensure that a free press regulates itself from the concentration of press ownership? These questions may be getting far ahead of what could actually happen in Malaysia but are nonetheless searching questions to bring to light. In a media culture so bogged down by repression we might not appreciate the value of regulation.
There is another debate that all who demand freedom of the press must engage in: the definition, purpose and extent of state secrets or classified information and the meaning of national security. Rather than during war and emergency when it is (sometimes) justifiably invoked, national security is an all too common reason for the protection of “state secrets” during peacetime and the most easily abused.
The reason why the Printing Presses and Publishing Act (PPPA) continues to exist in Malaysia underscores how central the media is to the consolidation of state power, ultimately undermining the citizenry’s freedom to be informed, to think, engage and criticise. It might appear that we live in an age of seemingly unlimited access to information and democracy of content production. But we continue to know less than political and corporate powers that become powerful by keeping what they know from us.
First published in The State on 2nd January 2014
1. Exhibition of the year. Traces: Ana Mendieta Retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, 24th September – 15 December 2013.
When Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from her New York City apartment in 1985, it might seem as if it had eclipsed her career. Her artist husband was rumoured to have pushed her out their apartment window during a violent argument. Comparisons between Mendieta’s dramatic death and her oftentimes morbid art were perhaps inevitable. But there was more to Mendieta than a tragic female artist as Traces, a comprehensive introduction to her career, showed. Mendieta was a self-identifying feminist artist who brought the movement’s perennial issues —violence against women and identity—to the centre of her work. At this retrospective of Mendieta’s brief but prolific career, one gets a sense of a woman who was on a primordial quest of finding herself in earth, stone, fire, and blood.
Germaine Greer once commented, disparagingly, about how female artists tended to nearly always use their (often naked) bodies in their artwork. Mendieta was not so different in that respect. Known as ‘earth-body’ art, Mendieta’s nude body merges with the natural world; in mud, into a tree, on grass. In a series of photographs, the outline of her body is eerily imprinted on the ground like an empty ancient burial site, set ablaze with the heart alight last. In another morbid photograph, a white sheet indiscreetly covers a blood-soaked body resembling a post-sacrificial scene. Mendieta has the posthumous power to spur women to take control of their own lives, but more significantly, how their lives will be remembered long after death if they can help it.
2. Film of the year 1: Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)
Most couples would be able to identify with the post-honeymoon romance of Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight; the last of Linklater’s romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Before Midnight has a more melancholic perspective on long-term relationships in contrast to the more hopeful and hopelessly romantic Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It is almost a cautionary tale of two beautiful much-in-love people who seem to be in a blissful ever after. The film is a triumph of sorts. Like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the film consists of conversations only. Little happens, and yet it tells us nearly everything about the mythical eternal fire of love threatened by an affair, diminishing youth, career let-downs, and parental guilt. Before Midnight and films like it (all talk, where nothing really happens) is a rare achievement in filmmaking for a medium so conducive to the spectacular.
3. Film of the year 2: Hannah Arendt (2012, Margarethe von Trotta)
Prior to Hannah Arendt, there have been few films about the life and work of a female philosopher, let alone a film featuring a woman thinking deeply about an epoch-defining moral problem. Von Trotta’s film reveals only but a glimpse of Arendt’s complex persona and work on morality, when she is faced with the task of writing an essay on Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping and trial in Jerusalem. Published in the New Yorker in 1953, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a thought piece into the imperceptible abyss of a Nazi officer’s feelings and actions that led millions of Jews to their deaths. With Eichmann obscured far into the background, Arendt and key protagonists—who would influence and reject her writing—play out a more interesting narrative in the foreground. We get to see Arendt, the thinker, encircled by the filmmaker’s over-use of cigarette smoke, the erstwhile youthful lover of Heidegger, and the intellectual provocateur. For a film about the Holocaust and the afterlife of the Second World War, it is highly unlikely to appeal to macho military history aficionados and all the better for it.
4. Read of the year: articles on gender and hyper-employment
There has been much talk about what our over-reliance on media technologies is doing to our everyday existence. For Ian Bogost in his article on The Atlantic, many of us are hyper-worked; being employed in one job while doing a number of other job-related things, (no) thanks to mobile technologies that allow us to do work anywhere, anytime without necessarily getting paid. A number of articles, more notably by Karen Gregory, Robin James, and Gordon Hull, have highlighted the feminised nature of hyperwork. They point to Marxist feminist analysis of preexisting under-valued feminised hyperwork in the hearth: the never-ending work of cleaning, cooking, caring, and secretarial duties in service of higher status and better paid men. Women, they argue, have been the hyperemployed before the the advent of advanced mobile technologies.
Media saturated societies have been blessed (or cursed) with the much feminised skill (or burden) of multi-tasking. Mobile technologies make it easier for us to check emails, listen to music, glance spreadsheets, and play games on the go. Sometimes all at the same time for the restless 21st century media user. The convenience that we gifted by perpetually improving media technologies may one day mean that the line between work and leisure is blurred most of the time. Steven Poole’s essay on the pitfalls of productivity coheres well with the discourse of hyperemployment. Technology-assisted hyperemployment is likely to change how we view paid/unpaid work and gender relations in profound ways in the very near future.
5. Documentary film of the year: The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)
Much ink and talk have been spent on The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary on Indonesian anti-Communist death squads who recall their blood-soaked heydays in 1965. It may be hotly tipped for a variety of awards and recipient of many accolades, but The Act of Killing is a towering achievement in the art of documentary film-making—a source of much debate on ethics and morality in its own right. Oppenheimer encountered his film subjects, a ragtag team of boastful mass murderers, quite by chance. Their openness to discuss their bloody exploits, or heroics in their view, on film take them on a journey of confronting their amorality and twisted heroic delusions. Often mixed with bizarre and fantastical proportions filled with personalised cinematic references. These references where the retired villains adopt with zeal, is where Oppenheimer’s documentary takes a remarkable turn of events. Will the re-enaction of their crimes under Oppenheimer’s occasionally manipulative gaze jolt the men into humanity and repentance? But why should they? Regardless of these difficult moral speculations, Oppenheimer’s ethnographic ethics of engaging with his subjects, in fluent Indonesian, and collaborating with them in the making of the film is enough to get the research geek (like yours truly) salivate in delight.
This piece is part of the 5 year Viridian retrospective organised by Tim Maly, published in The State on 13 December 2013:
Viridian Design was an avant-garde bright green design movement engineered by Bruce Sterling and intended to address climate change. It ran from 1998-2008. Five years later, we reflect.
The vision of a Viridian home conjures up an image of the sophisticated man of the woods, living on bare essentials and in a state-of-the-art cabin that oozes Scandinavian elegance. He would rear chickens and goats, and grow hydroponic vegetables, if Bruce Sterling would go that far. He lives the life minimally, sustainably, and beautifully.In his last Viridian note, Sterling advocates ownership of the multi-tool in order to turn an ordinary individual into a more capable, observant, and empowered one. He probably advocates this to both women and men. Probably. If this is the case, Sterling’s exhortation is somewhat visionary: the woman who is adept with the multi-tool empowers herself. Contrary to expectations a feminised embrace of DIY does exist; it is a subculture and it is not pink. Here, the multi-tool becomes a proverbial fishing rod, a means to protean ends rather than a gratifying consumable.
Besides the multi-tool, however, is the Viridian lifestyle really proposed with women and/or feminists in mind?
Sterling reminds us that our unhealthy relationship with goods unnecessarily expends precious time, money, and energy:
The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.
Sterling’s critique of materialism has much to offer the current wave of Western (White) middle-class feminism which has come of age thanks to a happy embrace of consumption and neoliberalism. Think Full Frontal Feminism and The Book of Jezebel. Today’s ‘empowered’ woman is heir to the past few decades’ commercialisation of empowerment: a woman who has it all and can buy it all.
Products marketed towards women, however, often erase the link between their (often female) producers, the conditions under which those products were created, and the process by which those products reach said female consumer. At the same time, the product becomes oversaturated with seductive meaning, and one label in particular: ‘empowerment.’ Marx has called this the ‘religious fog’ that obscures the real use value and (environmental) cost of products. It is only by demystifying this commodity fetishist fog that feminists can have a meaningful connection with products that we ostensibly cannot live without.
As an example, alternative menstrual products such as reusable, non-toxic cloth pads and diva cups raise a number of important questions relating to disposability, sustainability, and the environmental impact of gendered consumer products. The use of radical menstrual products replaces the blue liquid narratives of ‘happy’ and ‘bouncy’ but invisible periods, with a taboo-defying open embrace of menstrual realities and new definitions of ‘hygiene.’ Radical menstrual products allow us to reconnect with our bodies and reconceptualise how we understand feminine excreta
This strain of feminism and Sterling’s critique share similar caveats: yes, you are entitled to have stuff, but not too much. Find out where it comes from, who makes it, and if possible, make it yourself. Instead, Sterling advocates the ownership of only a few, but beautiful personal possessions:
Beautiful things are important. If they’re truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.
Feminists have a complicated relationship with beauty, which is highly valued above all else. The materialism of contemporary (femme) femininity dictates that she must surround herself with beautiful things; beautiful shoes, dresses, kitchen, home. The notion of beauty the Viridian woman should then seek is of a different kind, not facsimiled from lifestyle magazines but a critical aesthetic performance of the self.
To understand the feminist aesthetics of the self, it is first instructive to follow Butler and Foucault’s understanding of gender as both performative and an aesthetic discipline of the self. If gender is an aesthetic performance rather than biological fact, it can be transgressed and altered. If we knew how gender is ‘made,’ ie via various disciplines of femininity, then it can be remade by defying the disciplinary modes of femininity that plague our lives. This is how the reworking of aesthetic values can be emancipatory.
Informed by Viridian aesthetics, sustainability becomes central to a Viridian-feminist politics of living. But there is a danger that gendered sustainability reframes women’s freedom from domestic responsibility in favour of a blissful return to the traditionally feminine arts like knitting, sewing, pickling, and canning food. These are certainly life-enriching and sustaining skills, but they are not gender neutral. Men can be forgiven (and applauded) for taking up ‘feminine’ skills like baking and quilting. But women are rarely encouraged to handle the entropy of objects, fixing and building things. This needs to change.
The link between gender, race, and class-based inequality and environmental (in)justice has been an important, if slightly marginal, concern for feminists. Yet I feel that it is no longer fashionable to engage with these intersectional relationships. Ecofeminism today is essentialist and White-centric, while feminist vegetarianism has little to say about food miles and exploitation in healthful produce. Feminist environmental justice, meanwhile, must move away from defining femininity as intrinsically nurturing and towards ‘real’ socio-environmental conditions that affect the livelihood, health, and life opportunities of those whose lives exist at the intersections of multiple oppressions.
A sustainable feminist future that coheres with Viridian principles is fundamentally anti-consumerism and aware of the unequal local-global trade of goods. Sustainable feminism requires equality in the home and the sharing of quotidian chores. A Viridian woman rejects the manufactured innocence of retail therapy and clings to only a few, useful, (if possible) self-made things whose source and provenance are identifiable to a reasonable extent. The Viridian woman may wish to pursue useful life-skills such as plumbing, butchery, and car-tuning with geek-like enthusiasm if she wishes. It all sounds like a lot, but at the fundamental level, sustainable feminism is not about having and owning it all.