Is being called a prostitute misogynistic?

Upon arriving home from secondary school many years ago, I was slightly taken aback to find that someone had stuck ‘Slut’ on a post-it note on my backpack. I knew what the word meant and I was sure I was not that, thought my socially-awkward, pimply 15 year old self.

Years later in university, and still called a slut for making a Malay couple change seats in a computer lab (long story), I became determined to uncover the other meanings of this word and its similes.

This brings me to the outcry at the recent sexist attacks towards the female members of DAP: Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, Young Syefura Othman and Jamila Rahim (Melati). In a meeting with the press, the three women objected to the attacks for attempting to ‘dishonour’ their womanhood (menjatuhkan martabat wanita).

When Dyana, Rara, and Melati were labelled ‘pelacur’ it was aimed to silence and shame them for their political beliefs. And this is not the first or last time. It is a strategy with multiple historical precedents that reminds women they do not belong in Malaysian politics. The reasons why women are under-represented as leaders in politics are laid bare yet again.

There is no male equivalent for ‘pelacur’ in both meaning and use. It is used against women and as a way to emasculate men. However, I take issue when ‘prostitute’ is cast as the ultimate symbol of feminine moral laxity and dishonour. Is being called ‘pelacur’, ‘sundal’ or ‘jalang’ really so bad? Does this mean being a prostitute, or to use the political term, sex worker, is the worst a woman can be?

If the very term ‘prostitute’ is inherently misogynistic, then it reinforces the mutually exclusive dichotomy of ‘good’ women/female sexuality versus ‘bad’ women/female sexuality. ‘Good’ female sexuality is pure and virginal while its corresponding ‘bad’ is slutty and free with her body. ‘Good’ women deserve protection and respect for their restraint while ‘bad’ women do not.

Who gets to say which woman is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Nobody.

The thing about sexual stigmatising terms is that they can be both abusive and a source of resistance. It is abusive when the perpetrator uses it with the aim of shaming a person into submission. Sexual epithets of abuse is used when perpetrators lack the vocabulary and intellectual capacity to disagree or show displeasure, not because the words in and of themselves are abusive or taboo.

By contrast, women who want to reclaim female terms of abuse – prostitute, slut, slag, cunt , sundal, jalang – do so to neutralise their toxicity. Slutwalks that have now taken place around the globe aim to do just this; to show that sexual terms of abuse would have no effect on women when the patriarchal dichotomy of female sexuality is exposed for what it is.

Sex workers who are the ‘real’ prostitutes become the target of violence when they are emblematic of ‘bad’ female sexuality. Women who distance themselves from their sisters in the sex industry do no favours either, because all women are victims of misogyny and all can and will become targets of sexist abuse when they incite even the slightest displeasure.

So is being called a prostitute misogynistic? It depends on your intended meaning and effect. By right, prostitute and pelacur, along with sundal and jalang, should not be so toxic as they are now. They need to be reclaimed by all women who care about the integrity of their bodies and sexuality and those of others. Reclaiming stigmatising words is like intercepting ammunition and throwing them back, defused.

Feminism without women

The title of this blog post is a reference to Tania Modleski’s 1991 book [1] which has a pointed retort to the postmodernist turn in feminism and its impact on solidarity and political mobilising. The retort had a more specific aim; in 1988, Denise Riley had published Am I That Name? [2], a sort of feminist embrace of postmodernism as a way of exposing the fiction that is ‘women’ as a stable category of analysis.

Riley uses Sojourner Truth’s speech ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ to propose a new refrain, ‘Ain’t I a fluctuating identity?’ as to remind us that:

We can’t bracket off either Woman, whose capital letter has long alerted us to her dangers, or the more modest lower case ‘woman’, while leaving unexamined the ordinary, innocent sounding ‘women’. […] ‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which themselves change; ‘women’ is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so that the apparent continuity of the subject of ‘women’ isn’t to be relied on.

Modleski finds this type of ‘feminism without women’ quite simply alarming because doing away with label of ‘woman’ for oneself is a strategy available only to privileged feminists whose lives are relatively unconstrained by their womanhood. More troubling is the very use of Sojourner Truth’s personhood and question and respond to it in the negative, for the sake of anti-essentialist feminism.

Sojourner Truth’s refrain ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ has, in her time, two answers. Yes; because as a woman under slavery, her woman-identified female body is exploited for the purpose of breeding. No; because as a black woman under slavery, hers is a womanhood negated in an ideology in which ‘woman’ archetypically means a respectable white woman. Rather than have the privilege to ‘fluctuate’ between identities, the sexist racism of slavery overdetermines Sojourner Truth and women like her. So what makes a white feminist’s anti-essentialist feminism different from a slaver’s construction of black women? Modleski does not mince her words:

Given the doubleness of response required by the question as it is posed by a black woman and an ex-slave, it seems to me politically irresponsible for (white) feminism to refuse to grant to Sojourner Truth the status of a woman, for it would then be in complicity with the racist patriarchal system Sojourner Truth was protesting and that has denied, and in important ways continues to deny, this status to the black female (in this respect, excluding women from a contested category on the grounds that there is no category may well be the latest ruse of white middle-class feminism).

We can see versions of Riley’s ‘feminism without women’ in the current calls for the abolition of gender currently percolating British feminist spaces. In other instances of this crisis of ‘women’, (cis)-gender is the target; it hurts, constrains, and does not reflect ‘me’. Honestly, I don’t know how not recognising or eliminating gender can make the world better for women.

Gender is not just something you can identify in and of yourself, but is a taxonomic and biopolitical strategy to organise society. For the poststructurally-inclined, gender is not something ‘out there’ but is an unfinished process of becoming. To abolish gender, you’re going to need to overturn personal naming convention, but also normative sartorial codes, and other things we not only take for granted but may also be innocuous in themselves or are a source of reaffirmation for those marginalised from the trappings of privilege.

More recently, we see another manifestation of feminism without women. In contrast to postmodern pontificating, it now seems that feminism can proceed without actual women altogether. Worthy of a place in The Onion, the Icelandic minister for Foreign Affairs has announced to the United Nations that he has a rather good idea of hosting a major conference on feminism, gender equality, and sexual violence, but for men only. The ‘barbershop’ conference is meant to bring men and boys ‘to the table on gender equality in a positive way’, says the enlightened minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson.

Emma Watson’s HeForShe and the problematic implications of such a campaign (one of which is the White Knight approach to men’s ‘feminism’) can be attributed to the mainstreaming of men’s Very Important role in combating sexism and misogyny. So Very Important are they that not only are men expected at the frontline with women, but they may dispose of women altogether if they wished and get kudos for it.

We currently live in strange times, a time when people are prone to ponder whether a female celeb is a feminist or whether or not make-up or a cupcake is feminist. Many men would love to call themselves feminist and enlist themselves as feminist warriors (‘At last, real equality!’). But if being a feminist accrues the prestige of being modern, progressive, liberal, and generally decent, who would not want to be one?

Men can be involved in feminism, but as auxiliaries rather than its arbiters, legitimising feminism because it ‘needs’ men. Victoria Smith aka Glosswitch who is also suspicious of this ‘feminism without women’ part deux that HeForShe risks becoming perfectly captures my squeamishness about men’s uncritical enthusiasm to be feminists too:

I don’t want my sons to be feminists when they grow up. I want them to be men who have the courage and humanity to challenge masculinity, right here, right now. If women need a movement to say “I’m human”, they don’t need men jumping on board to say “yay, I’m human, too”. We know that already and men know it, too.

Reference

[1] Modleski, Tania (1991) Feminism Without Women, London: Routledge, pp.20-22

[2] Riley, Denise (1988) Am I That Name? London: MacMillan: pp. 1-2

What does a city for women look like?

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.

 

Reference:

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:

The finishing line

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.

A Malaysian scholar remembers Stuart Hall

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.

Men: the true voice of feminism

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.

Scholarship on the scrap heap of an ailing higher education

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.

In supermodernity, is the subaltern a cyborg?

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.

Why freedom of the press matters

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.