thread & circuits

archives & adventures of an old lady punk in the academy

Race & Riot Grrrl Redux

There’s been a lot of noise about race and riot grrrl as multiple retrospectives go forward, and I hope that I have had some impact on that conversation (see the essay I wrote for the special “Punk Anteriors” issue of Women & Performance, and my interview in the Summer 2013 issue of Bitch). There’s also been some pushback, as evidenced in the comments to Laina Dawes’ 2013 piece published on Bitch Media. I haven’t checked this blog in a while, but as I posted “Against Efficiency Machines,” WordPress helpfully reminded me that I hadn’t ever “approved” the following anonymous comment (submitted in 2010), which I have cut and pasted here as evidence that these confrontations with race and riot grrrl are absolutely necessary.

When Riot Grrrl started black men taunted them in sexist ways, demanding that they couldn’t ever know oppression because they were rich and white. But rich white girls knew oppression and this was their chance to express themselves if they could get over being shouted down by people of color who ruled the city. Minor Threat called this African-American oppression of white kids “Guilty of Being White.” In a city run by crackhead Marion Barry the oppression of white people by black and latin people is obvious, it’s known, it’s our reality. Outside of Washington, DC people could not possibly get it. Instead of being a feminist and demanding that black men stop “Hollering” at women in the street, people read this and think racism is the cause of our anger.

The chauvinist pig who forced himself on you and when you rejected him you became a “racist white bitch” and the only way not to be branded a racist would be to submit to him. He was real. There were assholes like that in every school, bused in from Ward 7 and Ward 8. Assholes who the teachers refused to discipline because of their hard lives, slinging coke at our parties, getting in fights, disrupting class, calling all women bitches.

Riot Grrrl in DC was both wealthy and white because the male power structure in DC is African-American and poor. Over and over again, to this day, we are told that our opinions do not matter- pay taxes to medicaid and welfare and shut up “newcomer” if you don’t like it “move back to Iowa” and you don’t live in “The REAL DC.”

It’s impossible to understand Riot Grrrl without knowing that. It’s impossible to understand feminism in Washington, DC without recognizing the ethnic dynamic that existed under Marion Barry.

 

Against Efficiency Machines

The following is a short piece I wrote for a special collection co-edited by Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam on postcolonial digital humanities. Though I don’t “do” digital humanities, Koh had asked me to contribute to a message board discussion and elaborate upon some comments I had made in a Facebook update about social media and academic labor. Koh and Risam then brought together a handful of those commenters and invited us to revise our posts for publication in The Journal of Digital Humanities. That went horribly awry, as Koh chronicles here and as is discussed here. In the aftermath, we are moving forward with another digital humanities journal (one that also accepts post-publication pieces), but I thought to post mine here as a work-in-progress after some friends and colleagues read initial drafts.

Please note: I do not hate blogs. I am blogging right now. I still have a LiveJournal full of feels in addition to a collaborative research blog Threadbared. I do believe that blogs can intervene in emerging discourses (about “native appropriations,” for instance), and facilitate intellectual and political inquiry (see Tressie McMillan Cottom’s dust up with The Chronicle of Higher Education). I also follow a lot of Tumblrs filled with unimpressed cats and street style. This piece is about the neoliberal rationale that commands that we must blog or tweet to be better entrepreneurial selves and how this imperative unfolds in the academy.

More P.S.: Alan Liu who is actually a digital humanities scholar wrote a brilliant essay called, “Where is Cultural Criticism in Digital Humanities?”, which includes the following insights I will have to incorporate into this essay. All I can say is, “BOOM.”

It is as if, when the order comes down from the funding agencies, university administrations, and other bodies mediating today’s dominant socioeconomic and political beliefs, digital humanists just concentrate on pushing the “execute” button on projects that amass the most data for the greatest number, process that data most efficiently and flexibly (flexible efficiency being the hallmark of postindustrialism), and manage the whole through ever “smarter” standards, protocols, schema, templates, and databases uplifting Frederick Winslow Taylor’s original scientific industrialism into ultraflexible postindustrial content management systems camouflaged as digital editions, libraries, and archives – all without pausing to reflect on the relation of the whole digital juggernaut to the new world order.  

I began blogging in 1998, before the coinage of “blog.” I was a graduate student at the time, but I already had a long history with writing in public, and it didn’t occur to me that I wrote for anyone besides a handful of other junior scholars and punks – in other words, others like me. But in the ever more saturated digital age, blogging has changed, at least for me. My experience of writing online is less informal experimentation and wild theorizing, and more multitudinous, increasingly professionalizing “interaction,” or what feels like immaterial labor, with electronic media and other never-sleeping machines. While I once enjoyed the conversations made possible through long-distance forms, I now find that I want more time apart from the imperative for continuous production and volitional surveillance. I link my now ambivalent response to blogging, coding, and its other cousins as imperative for scholarly relevance to neoliberalism and its demands for flexible subjects, immaterial labor, round-the-clock consumption, and the commodification of the self.

In circulation for some years now are essays and articles encouraging junior and other scholars to blog and tweet in order to raise their profile as “public intellectuals,” and demonstrate their “public relevance.” Some essayists champion digital platforms less to create a commons than to efficiently brand the entrepreneurial self. A typical article in this regard might be titled, “8 reasons why online reputation building can give academics a competitive advantage.” Blogging, it is argued, yields instrumental value, useful inasmuch as it can translate into quantifiable goods (posts can be turned into essays, clicks can be counted as audience reach) as well as more ephemeral ones, such as reputation and recognition. These observations are true in part for some, but I am more concerned about the deep structures that underlie these claims. After all, such advice is offered in an increasingly precarious market. Our corporatizing universities (whether public or private) rely on poorly-compensated adjunct and graduate teaching labor while at the same time pressuring tenure-track and tenured faculty to generate “practical,” financially viable research (whether in the form of grants, patents, and so forth), even to fundraise for their departments or colleges. University strategic plans call for more public engagement and interdisciplinary research – not within the interdisciplines of gender and women’s studies or ethnic studies for whom these are their historical foundations, but between the liberal arts and the STEM disciplines (in a troubling relationship that seems to imagine the humanities as handmaiden), and in partnerships with corporate entities and venture-capital behemoths such as Coursera and Udacity. To remain relevant, we are told we must blog, tweet, and code (whether this means learning genetic and neurobiological chemical formulas or computing languages). But it is important to ask, To what end? Or as Sarah T. Roberts of The Illusion of Volition put it, “What’s more important? Knowing how to code, or understanding the political and economic implications of a mandate to code?” Indeed, neoliberalism’s reach into the academy requires that we become more flexible subjects (even more than we are presently), willing to enjoin our personal brands to the university while capable of working more for less compensation, or the same — or none at all.

Lest I be accused of ignoring their potential, blogging as a creative testing grounds has been a part of my intellectual and political life for fifteen years. Some years ago, I and friend and colleague Minh-Ha Pham launched a research blog on fashion and beauty because it seemed the easiest format for our unfolding conversations. Threadbared became a placeholder for materials we gathered for our research projects and, as a side effect, it did also build our academic profiles. (I had already benefited from my early adoption of digital media; at least two of my graduate school-era publications and numerous citations in academic publications are due to my online presence.) But increasingly blogging requires more and more immaterial labor, first in terms of regular maintenance (answering emails, approving and responding to comments or mentions, freshening up the design, reading other blogs in dialogue), and second in terms of the actual writing. Blogging calls for concentrated bursts of writing and revising condensed into short increments of time, often in response to a news item that has caught “public attention” (however that is defined) for a brief moment. To lag behind, as my collaborator observes, is to feel like one has failed to keep pace with capital’s now-internalized rhythms.

After all, the tempo of public attention also calls for continuous blogging or tweeting in order to maintain one’s online presence, and retain relevance. That is, the temporal forms of the blog and tweet are twofold: singular and also serial, the retort and the anticipation of another to follow, and another. The individual post or tweet is not the point of the blog or feed after all. It is the accumulation of a searchable archive and a reliable feed, without any one object in that archive or feed being more important than any other, in and of itself. To put it another way, it might be less the content of particular posts or tweets than their form as comment, by virtue of its serial (and hoped-for viral) nature, that acts as evidence of relevance. As Rob Horning writes of social media platforms and its aesthetic categories in “Experiments in Inertia,” “The point of this is to secure social recognition and validation of the self, as a dynamic but socially real thing, a coherent concept that takes its stable form as an open-ended progression over time. The self is legitimate as format.”

Of course, as anyone of us who has learned HTML or WordPress can attest, format demands adherence to templates – their codes, conventions, and constraints. Blogging and tweeting are often touted as compositional forms that require from the writer such qualities as clarity and simplicity, both presumed to lend themselves further to legibility and usefulness. Sometimes from the university strategic plan we are told that these qualities enhance our public relevance, and sometimes from the politicos we are also told that these qualities fulfill our responsibilities to that same public. With both prizing disciplined craftsmanship and technical mastery, writing becomes a “functional” or instrumental vehicle for delivering information, or commands. (These and other prescriptions for academic prose and format are of course commonplace, and I am also critical of them elsewhere.) Composition forms that impose constraints can and do inspire creative adaptions – the haiku is often compared to the Tweet. Author Teju Cole’s much-remarked seven (very) short stories about drones is one brilliant and devastating example. But the commitment to public relevance as a regulative ideal, once it operates at the level of form as well as content, might well reduce our creative and imaginative possibilities to the performance of claims to relevance. (Hence the often-repeated claim about Twitter, “If you can’t explain all of your research in 140 characters, you probably don’t understand it at all.”) I am further reminded of Trinh T. Minh-Ha, who notes in her incredibly dense essay, “Writing From the Mirror-Box,” that such prescriptions are steeped in discourses of authority and arrogance. What is more conventional and deadening, she wonders aloud, than the directive that requires of the writer that she follow rules and regulations for being “clear,” “useful,” or otherwise transparent to the (electronic) eye? What then of the writer who wishes to obstruct or obscure, to disorient a reader and stop them short? What then of those creative and intellectual labors that are slow to unfurl, or otherwise appear to the efficacious eye as useless, obscurantist, impractical, marginal, or wholly unproductive? And what of critique that requires more time, for both writer and reader?

The demand for clarity and simplicity that might be best fulfilled in the format of the blog or the tweet is also a demand not to waste time. Time is a scarce quantity – you have only seconds or at best minutes to capture another’s attention, and it behooves you to ease them from one sentence to another. Time moves too quickly – you cannot tweet articles from three weeks ago, one academic tweeter scoffs, and be imagined relevant. The future is always now. There is value in being able to respond quickly to an object or event that (to evoke Walter Benjamin) flashes before you in a moment of controversy or crisis. Such an emphasis captures the transience of consciousness under capital, but does it also apprehend its deep structures? What of archival research or genealogical inquiry, wrestling with an object or event over time and allowing it to change your mind, or to change you? In the immediate aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder, I thought to comment in the ensuing fray. But I hesitated, not sure I wanted to let go those inchoate murmurings quite yet. What I wanted to say was uncertain, requiring from me stillness and withdrawal. The essay I wrote a year later about the hoodie as a sign, screen, expectation and force in considering Martin’s untimely murder, racial profiling and preemptive violence, is much thicker with the experience of sitting with the horrifying evidence.

Immersion in social media requires immaterial labor that might thus forestall other forms of temporal consciousness – such as sitting with, contemplation, untimeliness. One essay proselytizing on behalf of the academic blog scoffed at the notion that a person might not have “free” time to read blogs or tweets, suggesting that you could easily read an RSS feed during bus rides, or solitary lunches. More, continuous social media consumption is often less about interaction than familiarizing oneself with its conventions (as the above essay argued). That is, how it looks, and how best to replicate its format for yourself. Such consumption then acclimates all our activities –eating, reading, and other stolen moments for leisure– as imminent and immaterial labor. In his polemic on sleep as an affront to capitalism, Jonathan Crary observes how the eyeball is remade as an efficiency machine in an attention economy. “The term ‘eyeballs’ for the site of control,” Crary writes, “repositions human vision as a motor activity that can be subjected to external direction or stimuli . . . The eye is dislodged from the realm of optics and made into an intermediary element of a circuit whose end result is always a motor response of the body to electronic solicitation.” I find chastising another for refusing to expand their capacities for more labor perverse, but this is the neoliberal spirit of the age: all our time and activities are redirected toward transforming us into more flexible workers willing to perform more transient labor.

Thus I am wary of the promise of recognition (which is also the premise of legibility, and as mentioned, this is a disturbing metric) as just compensation. Visibility is no incontrovertible social good. (As Peggy Phelan put so well, “If representational visibility equals power, then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture.”) Social media has transformed and enhanced our capitulation to surveillance, recast as “sharing.” How then do we recognize evidence of being a person in late capitalism? Evidence of being a person is often the product you create, sometimes of yourself.

I am especially concerned where recognition coincides with a will to institutionality (to call forth Roderick Ferguson). Often remarked is the failure of universities and colleges to acknowledge, let alone assess, social media labor as intellectual productivity whether for hiring or for tenure. (As it stands, these forms are only permissible and desirable as evidence of one’s elective self-extension as flexible labor.) And yet, there is plenty of reason to be suspicious of the processes and metrics we can anticipate our universities ossifying. (We well know that existing standards for research “excellence” are already specious and arbitrary, especially applicable to gender nonnormative persons, women of color, and scholarship from the interdisciplines.) As observed in “Slow Scholarship: A Manifesto,” we publish “in a scholarly world where citation indices which count how many times an article is cited, not whether it is cited as a good or bad example.” So too do our present metrics for public relevance in the digital world count how many times a blog post is viewed, or linked – and it is not content, but circulation, that matters. These metrics are concerned with virality (the utterance worthy for the retweet, the reblog) and with its scale. Consider this from an article called, “Why Academics Should Blog,” delivered in the form of an economic imperative: “In blogging links are currency: your reputation is made by who links to you and how often. It’s a built in, and more-or-less democratic system of reputation as defined by interest. By having your ideas online, the value of your ideas (as reflected by who is interested in them) becomes immediately apparent.” Here, the vague nature of the more-or-less hides the erroneous presumption that the web acts as a democracy, or a “free” marketplace of ideas, and that those “ideas” are assessed with perfect transparency. (See any comment thread ever for evidence otherwise.) In which the most privileged metric for the recognition of one’s writing is through virality, the quantification of the self is solidified as a distributed quality of commodity capitalism. If evidence of being a person is becoming a brand, evidence of becoming a good brand is your willingness to sell your labor for free, and to more consumers. How many units of yourself can you move?

And yet one more scene regarding compensation (or its absence) and precarity presents itself. Transformed into contingent labor under neoliberalism, writers and journalists are hard-pressed in this moment to receive fair compensation. (I know at least a dozen writers who used to blog and have since quit, because it seemed an uneconomical expenditure, or because conditions do not favor idle speculation or wild prose.) Increasingly, big-name digital platforms insist writers and journalists labor in exchange for nothing more than a byline. And increasingly, scholars are targeted as an untapped vein of cheap copy, whether for regular columns or occasional editorials. Both writers and scholars then are told that experience and exposure (clicks) on a national or even global scale should be compensation enough. However, as Sarah Kendzior argues, these institutions that promise public recognition and prestige in exchange for poorly compensated or uncompensated labor are rotting, even as they revalue exploitation as a virtue. Look at the adjunctification of the academy under neoliberalism. Under such material conditions and their political and economic rationality, scholars and students are treated as (terribly indebted) efficiency machines, to the detriment of all our creative and intellectual labors.

What does it mean then to encourage especially junior scholars to participate in this same troubling and troubled economy for reasons of public relevance? It is not just a question of uncompensated labor, as scholars already are not compensated for most of our academic publications. Yet these are at least presently (hopefully, nominally) recognized as bearing value for annual reviews and tenure cases. But as writers and journalists increasingly refuse to write for these platforms for no compensation, we would do well not to further grease that wheel. “Solidarity” may seem an old-fashioned concept, but it is one we need if we are to refuse to concede to what neoliberalism would make of us (entrepreneurial, exceptional, exploitable). Thus to recommend we also brand ourselves as writers willing to write for free on behalf of those same platforms that have shaped these conditions of precarity seems quite sinister to me. We should consider carefully what we do beyond what we claim to do when we create a commons (as blogging is often imagined to do) without common cause.

This is not to say, don’t blog, or tweet. Blogs such as The New Inquiry, Prison Photography, Jadaliyya, and The Feminist Wire inform an incredibly rich digital commons. These and other countless blogs can and do inform and proliferate research and inquiry, even create cohorts. But the neoliberal imperative that would push more and more scholars to brand themselves as efficiency machines, to borrow from Lauren Berlant, might prove to be a cruel optimism. Professionalization comes at a cost, including that of your own uncompensated labor. And, you might not distinguish yourself after all, but instead become just another click in a continuous feed.

It’s Our Fales Library Donation and Collaboration Statement!

Some copies of the zines that I donated to Fales.

Some copies of the zines that I donated to Fales.

FALES LIBRARY DONATION STATEMENT

The Mimi Thi Nguyen Collection in Collaboration with the POC Zine Project

As a zinester and a scholar, it is an odd thing to be both an object of the archive and an interlocutor with them. Or, as the case might be, it is an odd thing to be both an object whose presence is perceived through absence and an interlocutor called upon to enact its retrieval. The story of this donation follows from just such an absence and call when my collaborator Daniela Capistrano, founder of the POC Zine Project, noted that archivist Lisa Darms’ upcoming manuscript on the Riot Grrrl Collection at the Fales Library –about which Darms’ tweeted, with an invitation to propose materials to include— could not address some of the most important zines by women of color, because at the time almost none of these zines are found in the archive. (It bears noting that the collection depends upon donations, and Darms’ does not purchase zines for the collection.) In a Twitter exchange, Capistrano encouraged Darms to continue including zines by women of color lest an important but much under-observed contribution to the story continue to be subsumed to a “big picture” of riot grrrl as feminist movement. At the same time, Capistrano contacted me to compile some of those zines for a collaborative donation to the Fales Library. As the mission statement for POC Zine Project states, the archive and access to it are central: “POC Zine Project’s mission is to makes ALL zines by POC (People of Color) easy to find, share and distribute. We are an experiment in activism and community through materiality.”

There are two issues that concern us –myself, and Capistrano at the POC Zine Project– in general: For the first, we argue that the archive is not just a place for study, but must be itself an object of it. What is in the archive, and how did it get there? What are the criteria for assembling, organizing and presenting materials? Who selects and collects, shapes and donates their stories to an archive? What is not there? How do these materials and absences produce knowledges, including norms and teleologies? It is stating the obvious to observe that no archive is an authoritative source for grasping a record of the past; we know from postcolonial studies in which the archive is demonstrably an artifact of colonial frames that the story the archive –any archive— tells is provisional, partial. For this reason, some who are concerned with history making aim to create a more full archive, excavating from the cracks and fissures those stories and persons identified as absent (of course, this requires the recognition that absence matters). But the second question I wish to address here is bigger than just what is in the archive, and how a donation like this one might “correct” an absence— it is for me a concern about how the archive, the absence, and the excavation tell another, useful story.

Such bigger stories are about feminist historiography –how do we tell the story of feminist movement and teleology, and the place of women of color? I want to suggest that a donation from my collection and the POC Zine Project does not necessarily address the underlying troubles for feminist historiographies of riot grrrl movement. As the narrow scope of liberal multiculturalism has by now taught us, it is that inclusion and incorporation might be made to cover over more troubling queries about how women of color are included, incorporated, or otherwise made visible. I am thinking of feminist archives or retrospectives that too often “hold a place” for women of color to say their piece, but in such a way that contains their critique and segregates it from the story of the movement’s contribution. We can see this logic operating in retrospectives of riot grrrl in which the story of race is contained as a chapter, or a part of a chapter, in its history, when it appears at all. Here then I cite Anjali Arondekar, whose For the Record considers these questions with regards to sexuality in the colonial archive: “The critical challenge is to imagine a practice of archival reading that incites relationships between the seductions of recovery and the occlusions such retrieval mandates. By this I mean to say: What if the recuperative gesture returns us to the space of absence? How then does one restore absence to itself? Put simply, can an empty archive also be full?” That is, it may be that the problem is not just a matter of historical invisibility (in this case, of people of color in punk subcultures) that would otherwise be corrected with further excavation and more visibility. The problem is this: Through what stories do absences become visible, and manageable? And does filling up that absence somehow hide the important stories that absence might tell us – about history-making, knowledge-making, movement-making? I wondered then, as I was pulling together zines by women of color (pre-1996) for this donation, how an almost-empty archive might lend greater substance to the story of epistemic violence that erases or otherwise contains our presence.

As I have said elsewhere, the archive is a political and cultural meaning making machine for the passage of objects into what Michel Foucault calls knowledge’s field of control and power’s sphere of intervention, and for “minor” objects in particular, we know well how troublesome such a passage might be. At the same time, myself and Daniela here wish to posit another historiographical gesture. That is, what if we refuse the emplottment of absence and subsequent redemption-through-presence that would render women of color as mere addition or supplement to the archives? What if the intervention –like this donation— becomes the story to tell about them?

The donations made from my collection in collaboration with the POC Zine Project and in conversation with Lisa Darms at the Riot Grrrl Collection is both a critique (broadly construed) and an alternate chronicle taking up questions about race and coloniality that cut across assumed feminist histories, investments and teleologies.[1] These pre-1996 selections from my collection point to not a side story in riot grrrl movement, but the story of encounter and contest, exchange and challenge – denoting not the singularity of riot grrrl movement, but its slide by other feminisms, fracturing and multiplying into other worlds. Again, as I have said elsewhere (and repeatedly on the first POC Zine Project/Race Riot! Tour in 2012), those other histories of people of color –here represented in the materials we donate together– are not an interruption into a singular scene or movement but the practice of another, co-present scene or movement that conversed and collided with the already-known story, but with alternate investments and forms of critique. These other stories of riot grrrl in particular and also punk at large unfolding enact historical and theoretical provocations with which we have yet to reckon.[2]


[1] I am grateful to my graduate research assistant Ariana Ruiz for the hours she put in copying and creating an inventory for the zines.

[2] Some of the material adapted here for this statement comes from Mimi Thi Nguyen, “Afterward,” in Punkademics: The Basement Show in the Ivory Tower, edited by Zack Furness, New York: Minor Compositions/Autonomedia, 2012, 217-223; and Mimi Thi Nguyen, “Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival,” in Women & Performance special issue “Punk Anteriors,” edited by Elizabeth Stinson and Fiona I.B. Ngô, 22:2-3 (July-November 2012); 173-196.

Here is the full list of zines created by POC pre-1996 that were donated:

Behind These Fragile Walls #1

Boredom Sucks #8.5

Borelando

Broken Thought #1 and #2

Cage #1, #2 and #3

Chica Loca 2

Chinese, Japanese, Indian Chief

Consider Yourself Kissed #2

Cyanide #1

Eracism #1 and #2

Evolution of a Race Riot

Exedra #4

Funeral #1 and #2

Hey Mexican!

Hey White Girl

Hijinx Zine #1

Hollyhock #3/War #1

Hollyhock #4.5

Housewife Turned Assassin! #2 and #4

Juryrig

Kreme Koolers #2 and #4

Mamasita #4

Marks in Time: The Very Early Go-Gos’s

Messy Flowers 3/Lolita

Mestiza

Mija

My Broken Halo #2

Oppression Song #1

Photobooth Toolbox #2

Please Don’t Hit Below The Belt!

Pure Tuna Fish #1, #6, #8, #9 and #10

Race Riot 2

Race Riot Project Directory

Scarbaby

Screaming Goddess #1 and #4 (zine and artwork)

Secret Agent Girl no. 666

Suburbia #8/ Tennis and Violins #2

Tennis and Violins

The Bakery

Totally Fucked Up #1

Wild Honey Pie #9 and #10

You Might as Well Live #4, #5, #8 and #9

ywap! #13

YOU ARE RACIST WHITE PUNK BOY

RACE RIOT 2 Available Online; Plus, The Introduction to the Race Riot Project Directory (2002)

tumblr_mfej5gdQQr1ra3u3zo1_500

Cover of the second Race Riot compilation zine (2002).

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Daniela Capistrano at POC Zine Project, the second issue of the Race Riot compilation zine (2002) is now available as a digital read on Issuu. You can still read the first one too (1997). The introduction to the second issue isn’t in my documents, but I did find an earlier iteration, which included these unfinished paragraphs:

Insidiously, we have found ourselves cited at length to provide a bit of “difference,” while our critiques of such token gestures have been largely ignored and the relations of exchange that govern the production and circulation of fanzines or other texts and the politics of authorship are evaded. What does it mean for a whitepunkgirl to get more play as a theorist or activist when her critiques are built upon the work of women of color?

I am still so suspicious. I am suspicious of inappropriate assumptions of intimacy, of the valorization of poverty, of the appropriation of terms to construct similarity through equivalencies when material histories would indicate otherwise.

But I have importantly learned patience as a teacher….

I do still have the introduction to the Race Riot Project Directory, originally included in the print version of the second issue. This will be available as a digital zine in 2013, also from the POC Zine Project, with its enormous list of POC zines from the United States, and some shorter lists of Filipino and Southeast Asian zines, but I want to publish the introduction now.

I like making lists, compiling things.

I was sitting in front of my computer, looking over old files, when I decided I needed to do this. Make a list of projects undertaken by people of color, in, around, or on their way out of punk rock (in any of its incarnations, hardcore, indie, grrrl, et cetera). Most of what I already had was left over from a previous list I’d made, but it was both cursory and several years old. I wanted to do something a little different, to make the list itself the point.

I told an Asian American punk girl I was doing this, a casual conversation in a local record store. We run into each other from time to time when our circles overlap, if only for brief moments. She scrunched up her nose and smiled. She doesn’t see the point of making this kind of list, because her race has never been an issue.

I never believed that this was going to matter to everybody.

There are at least three stories here, each to explain why I wanted to do this for different reasons.

For one, this is a very partial history, a footnote that we were here. I started reading zines in 1990, so my knowledge only goes so far, as well as my sleuthing skills. Some of the zines and projects listed are no longer around, but I felt it was important to at least note their existence, to recognize the contributions they made – or didn’t. (People of color can turn out crappy product, too, you know.) I wanted to create a sort of chronology, to paint a portrait of our involvement, however fleeting. That fleeting nature is a question in and of itself that begs an answer from punk rock hegemony, but I don’t pretend to begin to answer it here (in the introduction, at least). I just want to point it out, for now. It’s a history that tends toward tokenism and erasure; when most people are asked to name a person of color in the “scene,” only a few “big names” come to mind and the rest of us are relegated to amnesiac arrest. You know you’ve heard it, “There should be more zines by strong Asian women,” and you’re standing right there, a strong Asian woman who does a zine, amazed at the assured authority of the white boy who thinks he’s down. (True story.) So I want to be sure that I’m not an exception, a bizarre anomaly, that there are more instances than are acknowledged.

Another (if related) part of this is about me, wanting to remember, to chronicle my own search for work by other people of color. I wanted a conversation about race in the scene that wasn’t dominated by liberal platitudes, romances with exoticism or race traitors, and reactionary “shock value” racism. I needed it if I was going to justify to myself my participation in this scene. A few years ago I eventually edited a compilation zine called Evolution of a Race Riot to share some of the amazing writing and artwork I’ve found. Along with original writing, I reprinted essays and excerpts from many of the defunct zines below. And three years later I’m working on another issue because I’m still being inspired and still need that inspiration, because I continue to want to have this critical dialogue.  

But this is not to redeem punk rock, to provide more tokens for the “see, there are people of color in punk rock, it’s not racist” argument. This is rather an indictment of punk rock, for forgetting, for conspiring to forget, for posting unwritten rules for entry into the clubhouse.

After all, what does it mean that I felt this list is even necessary, a record of our participation? It means something when Mabuhay Gardens (San Francisco) is remembered as “just” a famous punk venue and not also a Filipino arts center, or when it is, this vexed convergence of differently positioned subcultural spaces is ignored. Or that I’d never heard of Raul’sin Texas, a bar run by two Chicano brothers and whose willingness to host punk shows resulted in a tribute compilation LP. It means something when I didn’t even know V. Vale, an early figure in the Bay Area punk/avant-garde art scene (Search and Destroy, V/Search), is Asian American until I actually met him, face-to-face. I didn’t know that an original member of the Go-Gos was a Latina who left the band to protest their move away from their punk rock roots. And it means something when someone shrugs, says race has never been an “issue,” because she’s never made it one.

It bears asking the question: What is it about punk rock that asks for that kind of erasure? The history of race in punk rock is long, complex, and convoluted, and intimately tied to the histories of gender and sexuality in punk rock as well. (And of course, how punk is conceptualized in Los Angeles suburbs versus metropolitan Manila is bound to be differentially understood and enacted.) No single trajectory of race and punk rock has ever sufficed, and this project won’t be able to either. However, this is an effort to make a history and ask critical questions about the issue of remembering and participating – whose “voices” are deemed seminal, important, inspirational? Whose are ignored? What are the contours of the punk rock hierarchy? White boys over colored girls? Bands over fanzines? The West over The Rest? How do we know that what we remember is true? whole? the “real” story? (Answer: we don’t.)

Again, this is a partial history and a networking tool. Use it and make your own.

PUNK ANTERIORS IS OUT!

Punk Anteriors cover

“PUNK ANTERIORS: GENEALOGY, THEORY, PERFORMANCE,” a special issue of Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory edited by Beth Stinson and Fiona I.B. Ngo, is out! My essay “Race, Riot Grrrl, and Revival” and my soundtrack “Making Waves: Other Punk Feminisms” are included alongside essays and commentaries by Osa Atoe (Shotgun Seamstress), Nia King (Colorlines, Ungrateful Black/White Girl), Katherine Wadkins (Wisdom Tooth, For the Birds Feminist Collective and Distro), Alice Bag (Violence Girl: East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story), Mariam Bastani (Maximumrocknroll), Ceci Moss, Iraya Robles, and so many more.

“Race, Riot Grrrl, and Revival” is an essay arguably twenty years in the making, culled and cultivated from zines and columns from that span of time. Here’s the abstract:

This essay ventures a critique of the existing historiography of riot grrrl and how the movement is narrated both ‘‘then’’ and ‘‘now’’ to contain and subsume the disruptions of race. The first counter-story commences with and departs from that scene of intimacy that is the semi-secret heart of riot grrrl’s resonance, an aesthetics of access – to the means of production and creative labor, but also to more ephemeral properties of expertise and self- knowledge – through which the personal and the political are collapsed. The author argues that the resistive properties of intimacy might also replicate its intrusive ones, and conceive of change narrowly as the adjustment of the individual subject – recalibrating her capacity for love or shame, for instance – to the structural determinations that constitute the historical present. In doing so, the author shows how race confounded such intimacy in order to demarcate the boundaries of riot grrrl aesthetics as both form and critique. In a second counter-story, with riot grrrl now becoming the subject of so much retrospection, the author argues that how the critiques of women of color are narrated is important to how we remember feminisms and how we produce feminist futures. Here the author locates riot grrrl within a broader critique of the historiography of feminist movement, to question then the progressive teleologies of origin, episode, and succession that would limit the internal disturbances within feminisms to its critics, or to the past. Discussions about the contours and contents of these historiographical impulses are always political ones, insofar as they establish what forces should be considered memorable, and what crises be deemed responsible for unsettling feminist movements. These discussions are happening now, and will continue no doubt into the future, and the author offers this interruption as an alternate genealogy through which we might pursue a politics as ‘‘destroyers of the status quo.’’

Right now the issue is only accessible to those with access to university or college libraries with subscriptions to the journal, but the editors are working on a Tumblr to post the ENTIRE ISSUE for free, along with lots of good information about “punk anteriors.” Here is the original call for papers, and a brief excerpt that explains the premise of the issue:

Revisions to the phenomenon of punk have been circulating since its inception. This issue seeks to capture the performance of those revisions, conducting a genealogical mapping of the punk movement, scenes, music, ethics, and aesthetics utilizing queer and feminist punk analytics. While some valuable feminist critiques of punk have surfaced – mainly to lionize the riot grrrl movement – many uneasy questions around race, nation, and sexuality remain unarticulated in feminist and gender performance scholarship. The interdisciplinary articles in this issue will address the performances and politics of these exclusions.

POC Zine Project/Race Riot! Tour 2012

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From L-R: Daniela Capistrano, Mimi Thi Nguyen, Mariam Bastani, Osa Atoe, Anna Vo, and Cristy Road, behind the table that holds the Race Riot Mall. We are at the Urbana Independent Media Center in Urbana, Illinois. Photo by Fiona I.B. Ngo.

Well, I clearly did not update from the road — but Daniela Capistrano, founder of the POC Zine Project, did! Daniela posted tour recaps every day (oftentimes in the van, while doing little shoulder rolls to all the freestyle tune-age); you can find links to all the recaps here from our two-week tour, beginning in Brooklyn and looping through the Midwest and returning once again to B-town, during which we spoke to audiences in university conference rooms, anarchist bookstores, coffeehouses and cafes, independent art galleries and studios, punk houses and DIY venues. It was a truly amazing experience that reconnected me profoundly with love and rage (our tour theme song was Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart,” and yes, our nights did explode when we were together!), and especially humbling to interact with people who had encountered my zines in the last fifteen years. And for those who hadn’t, For The Birds Feminist Collective and Distro ran off hundreds of copies of both issues of Race Riot for tour! I also sold new issues of slander (now available with both Race Riots on Stranger Danger Distro) about being an old lady punk in the academy. I miss all the badass ladies from tour, including Daniela and also Osa Atoe (Shotgun Seamstress), Mariam Bastani (Maximumrocknroll), Cristy Road (Spit and Passion most recently), and Anna Vo (Fix My Head) — good thing we are putting together a tour zine, and planning a South/Southwest/West Coast tour for the upcoming year! We will also be doing some fundraising events in Spring 2013; I’ll post about those as they come up.

I’ll draft some of what I hope to publish in the tour zine here; I’ll also be posting the donation statements I composed for the donation of some copies of pre-1996 women of color zines to the Riot Grrrl Collection at the Fales Library at New York University, and to the Zine Library at Barnard College, in collaboration with Daniela and the POC Zine Project. More to come!

POC Zine Project Links Compendium

I haven’t updated here for a long time, but I have some plans for this blog that include updates from the road on the Beyond Race Riot! tour. For now, check out what I’ve been up to in collaboration with Daniela Capistrano from the POC Zine Project:

PUNK PLANET 46 (Sometime in 2001)

My #1 fave film of all time is The Legend of Billie Jean. (With Times Square and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains running a close second and third). After countless viewings, I am still mesmerized by the scene of her transformation — the beautiful but unassuming girl from the trailer park, after one too many violations of her sense of dignity, cuts off her hair (and her sleeves) and otherwise embraces her outlaw status. That the film also deals with the outlaw figure as fashionable commodity –inspired, girls from all over shear their heads, though Billie Jean is troubled by her own iconicity– is also genius.

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This bloody road remains a mystery / This sudden darkness fills the air /What are we waiting for? / Won’t anybody help us? / What are we waiting for? / We can’t afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation / We will be invincible!

Whether princess or pauper, Molly Ringwald in all her incarnations meant nothing to me. The sum of her girlish charms left me unmoved. Neither pouting lips nor thrift-store femininity could persuade me. I remained unimpressed with her seemingly eternal pursuit of heterosexual romance — a pursuit which was translated on film as “spunk” or “personality.” As an ominous sign she favored feathered blonde boys in white linen suits and my god, they were in high school. Bad taste by way of Simon LeBon was continental maybe, but unfailingly bland. Or she slummed it for an afternoon with the broken boy from a broken home, whatever — she got her kicks by crossing the tracks just far enough to fake the danger.

When feeling especially vicious, I imagined her twenty years later, her pale mauves and hot pinks turned to suburban corals, a sickly salmon hue. From Pretty in Pink to Some Kind of Wonderful to Say Anything, The John Hughes oeuvre was unfailingly conservative – either you learned your place in the social-class continuum, the value of upward mobility, or both — Reagan-era cultural politics for teenagers. And the dangerous girls, the ones with potential –the baby dykes and raccoon-eyed freaks– were inevitably tamed by the promise of romantic heterosexual love, that old sleight of (empty) hand. Like anyone really believed Watts with her red-fringed gloves and drumsticks in back jean pocket would fall for a chump boy like sensitive-yet-superficial Keith. We all knew in our heart of hearts that she was destined for girls like us, girls who wanted to rock (and make) out with other girls. I envisioned her in Greyhound buses and truck cabs, blonde head pressed against the rain-spattered window, trekking to the Pacific Northwest after a last-gasp graduation to join an all-girl rock band. And I cheered when The Basketcase in her black shadow and black mood uttered, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” That felt real and prophetic, even. But when Ally resurfaced from high school bathroom in white lace and distastefully muted eyeliner, I recognized the set-up and cursed Molly (and Hughes) for her awkward, awful transformation and looked away.

But Billie Jean — now she was a girl who could bruise your heart.

This shattered dream you cannot justify /We’re gonna scream until we’re satisfied /What are we running for? / We’ve got the right to be angry / What are we running for? / When there’s nowhere we can run to anymore /We can’t afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible!

I love The Legend of Billie Jean. I first saw it when I was fourteen, three years after it was released. I was an alternateen looking for punk rock and I found Billie Jean. Not instead, but simultaneously. It had everything a girl like me could ask for in a “whirlwind story about a group of kids who challenge the adult world:” a girl outlaw in fingerless gloves and a righteous sense of justice. Isn’t this every girl’s teenage fantasy?

In The Legend, it’s summer in Texas, and the heat is sweltering. Billie Jean is an attractive working-class white teenager who lives in a trailer park with her divorced mother and bleached blonde younger brother Binx. Because she is “from the trailers,” the local boys believe she must be cheap, and led by ringleader Hubie, the boys trash Binx’s scooter (and later Binx) when Billie Jean proves otherwise.

Billie Jean arrives at Hubie’s father’s seaside shop to demand the exact amount for the scooter repairs after appealing to a sympathetic but dismissive police lieutenant. The senior Pyatt invites her upstairs to the office, ostensibly to withdraw money from the safe. Once there, he suggests a “play as you pay” plan – and he makes himself plain, sliding his hand against her arm and suddenly lunging. No wilting Texas rose, she knees him in the groin and flies down the stairs into the shop, where Binx has discovered the gun in the register. Seeing his sister threatened, he waves the gun at Pyatt, and the gun accidentally goes off. Thus begins their headlong flight from the law, taking their best friends Ophelia and Putter with them in a battered station wagon.

After a failed attempt to negotiate with the police at a mall -Pyatt brings a gang of teenage thugs for an ambush- the kids break into a mansion for food and shelter, and discover an ally in the son of the District Attorney. He suggests they make a video to present their demands and Billie Jean, earlier mesmerized by Jean Seberg’s portrayal of Joan of Arc (the film is playing during a group discussion), prepares herself for inadvertent pop stardom. Making sense of her situation through an image of Jean/Joan burning at the stake, she shears her locks and shreds her clothes, making herself over into a modern Joan of Arc or a more righteous (rather than merely art-damaged) Penelope Houston. It is through a commodity image that Billie Jean realizes her political strategy — manipulating a cinematic sensibility, she presents a striking figure on video. Her friends are awed – and soon, so is everyone else within reach of radios, newspapers and television sets.

The video of Billie Jean with her fist in the air, shouting, “Fair is fair,” is played everywhere. Inspired by her message she becomes a touchstone for teenage rebellion, a fugitive aided and abetted by legions of youth. They slip her past police roadblocks, offer her shelter in underground clubs, nourish her on their fathers’ credit cards. Young white girls get the “Billie Jean cut” and even Putter (no stranger to the “real” Billie Jean) invests in Billie Jean’s celebrity and defiantly cuts her hair before a rapt audience of wannabe Billie Jeans, cops, and her abusive mother.

Beneath the layered guitar wanking and arbitrary (but temporary) love interest lies not only a critique of misogyny and classism, but also a meditation on commodity culture, pop presence, and fantasies of identification. This is not limited to Billie Jean’s identification with the cinematic image of Jean/Joan. In the course of her criminalization Billie Jean becomes iconic as a sexualized body in ways which she cannot control. Ever the businessman, Pyatt not only displays the bloody shirt he’d been wearing when shot, but shills photographs of Billie Jean taken by Hubie’s pals, emerging enraged from a local swimming hole in a clinging top and bikini. He pawns pastel-hued t-shirts emblazoned with her “mug shot,” the red concentric circles of a target framing her head. There are visors (oh so ’80s) and posters and bumper stickers and frisbees and beach towels, some of them ironically emblazoned with the slogan “Fair is fair.”

Her gender and class status as “white trash,” those markers that contain and constrain her mobility through the world, are coded as dangerous and criminal. As such her status as a “white trash” teenage girl makes her hyper-visible to the disciplinary state, but also to commodity culture, even while her ascent to cult figure in some ways depends upon ignoring the historicity of those social conditions; so that even as she is pursued by the mustered strength of Texas law enforcement, her image reaps profit and (pop) pleasure for others.

The Marxist model of commodity fetishism describes an affective process, a substitution of meanings – the social relations of labor are disguised by the commodity form. But commodities and images do not simply veil “real” conditions, but constitute them. Images are also social relations, and this becomes clear for Billie Jean as the line between state surveillance and her supposed celebrity is blurred. This is a different order of fetishism – a fetishism of figures, in which the iconic persona of “Billie Jean” is invested with a life of her own. People relate not to Billie Jean per se but her image, and in a way that obscures the histories of its determination as image — including Billie Jean’s own meditation upon Jean Seberg’s cinematic portrayal. Like all pop icons, she (both Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc and Billie Jean) becomes the screen upon which an audience of thousands projects their fears and fantasies. In the latter case, the adults are afraid of her, the kids adore her. They make meaning of their own lives, whether seemingly threatened or otherwise encouraged, in relation to her image.

A group of preteens rally to her, hoping that she’ll save a neighborhood boy from the physical abuse of his father; a man spies her adolescent “gang” and vows to bring her to justice, and like a Old West vigilante (complete with cowboy hat and rifle) he guns his pick-up truck at the gathered children. And as a pop figure the social relations that conditioned Billie Jean’s outlaw status are obscured – the girl who offers Billie Jean a ride in her Ferrari might not have done so if she were not a celebrity, and the throngs of teenagers who sport her image may very well have been her torturers only days earlier. The girls who turn themselves in to the police, all claiming to be Billie Jean, participate in a projective fantasy of being “bad” like Billie Jean in ways that elide uneven class relations and hierarchy and also manifest a desire for “authenticity.” It is a fantasy with material force – while the sense of solidarity forged between the girls is mediated by commodity culture (and punk rock is no exception), it is still a meaningful relation, enough to inspire the contradictory impulse to both appropriate and inhabit Billie Jean’s notoriety. Their gesture is not simply part disrespect and part homage, part consumption and part conviction, but a mixture of all these things at once.

The conclusion of the film finds Billie Jean confronted with her iconic stature, literally. Her brother has just been shot by state troopers -mistaken for herself in a dress- and disappeared into the back of an ambulance at the beach where she was to turn over the “hostage” and receive a new bike. There are crowds of young and old (but mostly young) attracted to the beach by the media-frenzy over Billie Jean’s scheduled appearance. In the hours before the exchange -boy for bike- was to be made, beach-goers are treated to Billie Jean haircuts, Billie Jean contests, Billie Jean souvenirs. Radio station DJs broadcast from sandy towels and portable amps and the teenaged audience parties in anticipation.

Billie Jean only notices once her brother is taken away that everyone has her face stuck to some part of their bodies, and follows the trail of lights in the dimming dusk to the circus tent Pyatt has erected to sell his wares. Towering above the beach is a paper-mache effigy of Billie Jean, pointing a gun toward the ground, other hand on hip. Before the crowd, the cops and the cameras she confronts him about his sexual coercion, his unwillingness to otherwise pay for the damages to the bike – and seeing that she has an audience, he grins, stutters, and attempts to bribe her into silence, or submission. He reaches into the register and pushes a wad of bills into her limp hand. “A little more, a little less, does it matter?” he says. “It’s not about the money,” she replies scornfully, and throws the bills into the fire. As Pyatt scrambles on all fours to recover the cash Lloyd moves behind her to toss a poster into the growing flames. Soon the crowd is coming forward to lay their souvenirs in the fire, or lofting them through the air. Everyone watches as the fire grows to consume the posters, t-shirts, tent and effigy, perhaps participating in another, totally different kind of collective pleasure.

In film after film Molly (and others like her) triumphs when she wins the rich boy in her homemade prom dress or bride’s maid gown, proof she is worthy of heterosexual desire. Not Billie Jean. In the end she walks away from the fire, the boy, and Texas. (This is when the Pat Benetar song “Invincible” plays, and this is why I tear up like a big gooey baby every time I hear it.) Her burning effigy is not only an allusion to Joan of Arc – having led the people to a dream of freedom, she’s misunderstood and betrayed by the very same- but a potential critique of consumption as “revolutionary” activity. But at the same time it speaks to the dangers of consuming and appropriating radical stances and images, of the depoliticization of historical conditions or capitalist relations, it also points to the contradictory pleasures of fantasy identification with our pop stars and the possibility for that pleasure to become a kind of political agency, however temporary.

Is any of this coincidence? One of the screenwriters for the film was Walter Bernstein, a blacklisted writer in the 1950s who was targeted by the House on Un-American Activities Commission for his leftist political alliances. It’s entirely possible that he was versed in the kinds of intellectual debates circulating among leftist cultural workers at the time, and retained some of these threads even in penning a mainstream film marketed for the vast American teenage market.

Is it cheesy? Well, you could argue all teen flicks by necessity are idealistic and melodramatic, and this is a fantasy about a teenaged heroine who struggles against a homegrown injustice. Overt metaphors (perhaps Joan of Arc is a bit much) and the cringe-worthy menstruation scene are distracting. And clearly Billie Jean the character depends upon Helen Slater the actor being recognized as conventionally “pretty:” tall, thin, blond. But I think the demand for absolute resistance is misguided, and to demand purity in pop culture ignores contradictory and complex realities, and so maybe there’s hope for Molly after all. We know by now that no mass cultural production (especially film) is shaped outside of corporate management and market influence; we know capitalist culture is able to assimilate even the most “revolutionary” sorts of images or themes without threat to its survival.

But it may be that because we already know these things, we can begin to ask other questions. The issue of how to capture the popular imagination is at the center of the struggle for hegemony. Instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audience) for the fact of its messy manufacture, we might probe further to examine the character and range of any given commodity form’s power and possibility, what moment of crisis it might represent, what (problematic) pleasures it might afford. We should neither blindly denounce nor embrace these pleasures, but instead try to understand what produces them. This does not mean we abandon the analysis of late capitalist culture or patriarchal relations; on the contrary, it might mean that we take these more seriously. And as black queer theorist Wahneema Lubiano writes, “It might well be that taking popular culture seriously could teach us something about form, about aesthetics and about the development of pleasure in politics.”

And maybe I just want to be able to take seriously my own pleasures; as a queer Asian American girl reader of pop culture, I remember what it meant for me to harbor crushes on Duckie and Watts (and thus imagine her alternate endings), or to read Wonder Woman as “almost Asian” (I was seven, and it was the black hair that did it). But it’s also because when I first saw this movie at fourteen, it was like how punk rock used to feel – impossibly, hopefully idealistic. However uneven my own fantasy of identification, it fueled both my nascent desire for rebellion and my sense of its potential. And watching it however many years later, it reminds me how good it felt to believe.

I’ll always love you, Billie Jean.

And with the power of conviction /There is no sacrifice /It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible /Won’t anybody help us? / What are we running for? /When there’s nowhere we can to anymore /We can’t afford to be innocent /Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible!

Punk Planet 56 (July/August 2003)

Two weeks after the war began I donned my red Members Only jacket, slicked back my skate punk hair and jumped in the car to drive across the Bay. A fellow feminist and queer academic, Matt had invited me to his appearance with the drag troupe The Disposable Boy Toys at a Queer Alliance benefit in the City. Before the show he drew me backstage through a wondrous sea of boys packing and binding: punk boys with mohawks and sleeveless jean jackets, glitter boys in angel wings and pink ties, and jock boys in backward baseball caps and smudges of facial hair. I didn’t need the MC Summer’s Eve to tell me, as she did before presenting the first act, “You may think you don’t swing that way, but you do.”

Between the effeminate nerds in glasses and natty slicksters in three-piece suits, the larger political possibilities of drag denaturalize the matching of binary gender to particular bodies and present a range of femininities and masculinities. But drag can also highlight the acts of policing that non-gender normative persons are subject to in their everyday lives, the demands they face to perform the “appropriate” gender and the threats that follow. What appears as performance in the theatrical space of the drag show is a matter of off-stage survival for some. These tensions dramatized in the drag show — between the interior and the exterior of the self, the privilege of mobility and violence of normalization, the hierarchical spaces of disruption and danger– can also be put to work at other pressure points where social forces constrain the available possibilities for being in the world.

As a drag troupe with a critical political consciousness, the Disposable Boy Toys performed an anti-capitalism act and an anti-war act (and these are simplifications of their “messages”), both featuring vignettes of acts of policing. In the first, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited by a small group standing at attention before the song kicked in with heavy guitars and lyrics despairing the state of the union. As two performers furiously lip-synced the verses, men in lab coats adjusted the height of arms in salute, delivering scoldings and slaps when a person failed to maintain the proper posture. In the antiwar act, a police officer under the direction of a masked George W. Bush gagged protesters (with duct tape) who mouthed the lyrics: “Hey hey, U.S.A., how many kids did you kill today?” At the conclusion of the song, one of the protesters held up a sign that read, “What are YOU going to do about it?”

Watching these staged acts of civil disobedience, I thought about how the accumulation of an array of effects — the songs chosen, the voiceless gestures translating agreement or dissent, the address to the viewer– communicated a particular critical position in relation to nationalism and the state. The theatricalization of political rage is historically a vital component of radical queer activism, and as a strategy of contestation manifests other possibilities for a radical cultural politics. In particular, these acts can pose a challenge to the short-circuiting of the civic imagination and provide a critical mode to think through the production of national affect or sentimentality. While drag addresses the intimate levels of consciousness at which gender and sexuality are lived and felt –as meaningful embodiment or violent regulation– its theatrical mode can also be made to interrogate the intimate levels of consciousness at which nationalism and democracy are lived and felt. The anti-war acts suggests that political anger is not sanctioned in the current climate. What modes of feeling are, and what does this mean for realizing democracy?

In a national address George W. Bush reads out loud a letter from a fourth grader offering her father up for war, and television cameras capture U.S. soldiers inscribing the names of the World Trade Center dead on bombs dropped over Iraq. Tri-colored banner headlines scream “UNDER GOD” and full-color t.v. footage stream Senate members reiterating their allegiance to “God and country” after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals released their ruling on the necessary separation of church and state. Newspapers and magazines print photographs of tearful wives kissing husbands good-bye as carriers loom on the horizon, and pundits of all sorts scold anti-war protesters for undermining the social unity of the nation. Amassing at the heart of the U.S. national imagination, these are not moments that are concerned with gritty political dialogues and the democratic process. Instead, democracy is conceived as a sentimental and moral category, above or outside of the political. What emerges from these nationalizing discourses is a romantic ideal of civic life –the nation as family– that discourages participation in necessarily difficult dialogues about politics and power.

We witness the shrinking of available political exchange as war becomes the governing principle of the U.S. American foreign and domestic policy, and popular discourse allows for limited discussion of the military action in Iraq in not political but moral and emotional terms. As a dominant media source and staging ground for national sentimentality, the television news gives us the war as an orchestrated melodrama of intense emotionalism and personal triumphs; the cable news networks stream the headline “Saving Private Lynch,” and there is no doubt a docudrama in the making. As a cultural form, the melodrama presents the war in the overdetermined and excessive gestures of personal sacrifice and honor in order to frame the meaning of the war as prepolitical. In particular, the war melodrama evades critical historical and political frameworks to instead individualize interpretations of global events and “manage” them as stories. Enacting simple binaries of opposition (between savage and civilized, good and evil, most notably) to bolster its claims, the melodrama seeks to resolve uncertainty with recourse to the personal, the familial and a moral authority assumed to transcend all political stances.

The belief that the nation provides a sentimental mode of social unity that transcends the political has become a widespread, “common sense” definition of democracy. And while the television news is perhaps the most obvious example of the war melodrama, this phenomenon is not limited to the media. Generated and regulated by a national constellation of discourses and institutions, this (forcibly) consensual space of the nation is emptied of debate, in which feeling differently is a traitorous act. It takes multiple forms but always as an antipolitical gesture that refuses disagreement or meaningful contestation. There is nothing that is not ideological about this, though it pretends to be innocent. For instance — encouraged to consider the military apparatus as something other than an industrial-economic institution, as instead the folksy muster of “our boys,” the therapeutic language of troop support reduces the range of acceptable terms and categories with which to discuss war to nonpolitical and sentimental ones. And as an ethnocentric discourse (inasmuch as it pits “our troops” against a foreign “other,” out there), it traffics in the active disavowal of the political and historical conditions of the conflict and its implications for targeted populations.

These popular discourses produce modes of feeling that constrain and block the political process of functioning disagreement, contestation, and dialogue. The frightening result is the sacralization of democracy as the moral measure of the U.S. nation, residing outside of history or politics, a thing to be safeguarded from popular use or alternative interpretation. It is an exercise that assumes the protection of democracy from its actual practice. And in these sentimental moments of staged social unity, the state must seem to care, even when injustices on all sides can be attributed to its daily operation. It offers a narrow definition of democracy that is full of erasures and excuses, translating into immigrant detentions, the USA PATRIOT Act, deregulation and the dismantling of labor and environmental protections, a dangerous unilateralist foreign policy, and the slashing of domestic social programs, including billions from the Veterans Affairs budget which pays out soldiers’ benefits and other forms of “support.”

The chief social power of these sentimental discourses is in the labor of socialization. That is, they tell us how to be citizens and how to feel about the world. As political theorist Barbara Cruikshank writes, “the citizen is an effect and an instrument of political power rather than just a participant in politics,” and there are a range of dangers involved in expressing the “wrong” identifications and the “wrong” feelings. Drag, of course, politicizes these dangers in terms of gender, bodies and sexual desire. But if drag theatricalizes gender as an effect and instrument of power, can it model a similar strategy for thinking through the making of national subjects? And can we conceive of a political cultural project able to appropriate the intimate, emotional address into a demand for democratic potential?

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Boy Bands Against the War (BBAW) wants to save us from an abusive relationship. Or more, they want us to save ourselves. A member of the San Francisco-based drag troupe the Transformers, Jason Blue envisions BBAW as a political network of boy band members united in their opposition to the war and the Bush administration. In a letter sent to O-Town, N. Snyc, Backstreet Boys and a slew of drag kings, Jason Blue pitches for this coalition of cuties:

Dear Past or Present Boy Band Member,

The massive anti-war demonstrations that have sprung up all over the world in the past few days have been amazing, inspiring, empowering, and beautiful – except for the embarrassing and shameful absence of boy bands. Boy Bands Against the War is the solution to that problem: a coalition of past and present members of boy bands, united in our commitment to global peace and global justice.

The letter continues, “No one understands heartbreak like a boy bander. We know: it. s time to break up with George Bush.” As an organization in its infancy, local BBAW members (a.k.a. The Transformers) have already performed their antiwar rendition of the N. Snyc Top Ten break-up hit “Bye Bye Bye” at various venues. But as a larger political project, Boy Bands Against the War speaks the language of popular culture, the wish fulfillment of crushes and other fantasies of identification with its stars. As black British theorist Stuart Hall argues, “Popular culture is a theater of popular desires, a theater of popular fantasies. It is where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there, but to ourselves for the first time.” The boy band is a commercial phenomenon of global proportions, a billion-dollar industry in and of themselves — you can’t get much more “pop.” But instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audiences) for the fact of its non-innocence, what else can we say about the character and range of any given commodity form’s power and possibility, and what pleasures it might afford?

The promises pop musicians offer to audiences ring with emotional resonance because there is something utopian about their sentiments, combined with the sheer power of their mass appeal. In particular, the break-up song is both the end of illusion and the promise of a brighter future. The self-imaginings of a stronger “me” in the aftermath of deception is a standard tale in the break-up song; I don’t know boy bands, but I do know Christina Aguilera is a fighter. ( If it wasn’t for all that / you tried to do / I wouldn’t know / just how capable / I am to pull through / so I wanna say thank you / Cause it makes me that much stronger / Makes me work a little bit harder / It makes me that much wiser / So thanks for making me a fighter! ) The break-up song is not just the realization that our horizon of potential is limited within the confines of an especially bad relationship; it is the affirmation that we deserve better than what we presently have. The break-up song is never just bitter — it is an avowal to realize a more fulfilling existence, to find meaning in other relationships, to desire other ways of being. So just as these songs (as commonplace and trite as some of them seem) employ forms of support and pleasure in pursuit of something other than a particular romance — a relationship doomed to fail because of lies, or a lack of communication, or inequality– BBAW employs forms of support and pleasure in pursuit of something other than a nationalist affect or uncritical patriotism.

This apparently trivial analogy is actually significant for the way it uses the intimate address not to shrink but expand the range of possibilities for the subject of betrayal to break away from what is safe, from what is perhaps sentimental, to instead imagine a different, more daring life. The individual initiating the (song) break with the deceptive lover or boorish President struggles through a public declaration of independence from the sanctioned space of romantic love or national unity, where we are so often told to look for social fulfillment, to demand a more equitable and accountable relationship. The prescriptive nature of courtship and marriage (especially in light of legislation privileging marriage for poor women and the continued delegitimization of non-heternormative relationships), of proper citizenship and patriotism, is challenged by this public performance of disenchantment. In the right hands, the break-up song can become the space in which the nationalization of sentimental feelings (as dominant metaphors for subordinate citizenship to the state) is rejected in the song. s revelation of its controlling violence.

While there is no word yet from the top-charting boy bands, the drag kings are in it all the way. And of course, the queering of boy bands (though perhaps not such a leap) is itself a critique of available and “appropriate” masculinities and objects of desire. That a drag king might position himself in the firmament of pop stars is to reevaluate those norms of gender and desire, as well as our understanding of fantasies of identification and what they mean for how we build new ways of being in the world.

Channeling the utopian commodity image of the boy band, BBAW suggests that self-fulfillment as a desiring subject can be found outside of the bad relationship and in the collective hunger for democratic practice. As such BBAW reimagines an ideal love as the pursuit of social justice: “When the visions of war around you bring tears to your eyes, and all that surrounds you are the government’s secrets and lies, we’ll be your strength. We’ll give you hope. Keeping your faith when it’s gone. Our love for the people of the world is like a river, peaceful and deep. Baby, call on us tonight, because this we promise you: another world is possible. And Boy Bands Against the War pledges to make it real.”

While popular culture is never innocent, it is important. Between its intense affect and ubiquitous presence, it is a critical arena for the struggle over the popular imagination and hegemony. After all, it can make tenable the nationalization of sentimental feelings and contain the available possibilities for transgression and social transformation; it can also the imaginative space where we remake ourselves as desiring, desirable subjects, as queer superheroes and transnational pop stars. The break-up song is hardly inherently subversive; but as such, BBAW offers both a critique of the limitations of popular culture and an appropriation of its pleasures. As queer theorist Wahneema Lubiano argues, “It might well be that taking popular culture seriously could teach us something about form, about aesthetics and about the development of pleasure in politics.” The use of self-theatricalization and star fantasies in the BBAW project stages and reclaims what has been made queer about democratic desire in the current political climate. And that fucking rules.

_______________________

After the benefit I drove to Iraya’s house, where she gave me some lip-gloss and applied sweeps of green eye shadow to her own lids while standing on the toilet. The car loaded with crates of LPs, CDs, and a six-foot keyboard, we picked up Jesse and Reginald and a keyboard stand and headed to the bar for Co-ed Magnetic, the queer discotheque offering “nasti new wave,” “trashi rock,” “hott hip-hop” and free admission to those who brought their anti-war protest citations.

We danced to the best mixes ever (how long has it been since I’ve heard, “Boom, boom, boom, let’s go back to my room,” let alone, “Two of Hearts” by Stacey Q?) as loops of found footage screened behind us, a hypnotic blend of spliced scenes from ’70s porn, B-movies, concert films, multipled, quartered, and overlaid with Atari game graphics. Just after midnight Gary (a.k.a. D.M. Feelings) donned a black wig, shorts (tied with a chiffon sash) and a rare Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt with a doctored photograph of Ronald Reagan, a bullethole square in the middle of his forehead. Only Frankie can stop me now!, the shirt read, and I pondered for a moment what it would be like had Frankie been able to do so. The small dance floor cleared, he became “Bibi,” lip-syncing to “The Professionals” from Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains as the “Bargain Bins” (a handful of us waving our arms in the air and shaking our fine asses) acted as his Greek chorus: Does this country mean that much to you? Not me not me not me!

The political project of “materializing democracy” is multifaceted. I need poststructuralist political theory, drag troupes and club nights with antiwar admission policies to sustain me in this continuing state of emergency. (As Matt said, “For some persons and populations, this level of state surveillance and social discipline is not new.”) This sort of performative political theory is as vital as arguments concerning the nuances of social policy or collective organizing for structural reform. While these difficult political dialogues and decisions require a different sort of commitment, when these dialogues and decisions are blocked by cultural practices that manage and contain discourses about democracy, we need to examine how and why.

The staging of forbidden feelings of queer desire, critical rage, or democratic disappointment is a critical counterpoint to the naturalization of hierarchies of “right” feelings, “right” ways of being. The violence of national normativity that is, among other things, gendered and sexualized, is here laid bare like a lover’s deception, or a state’s violence against its subjects. These are crucial projects that get at how ideology operates at the intimate levels of consciousness, feeling, and body, how fantasies and nightmares about who are imagine ourselves to be are produced at the junctures of power. They force us to reimagine how democracy is lived and felt, how it is translated into personal effects and collective desires, and for what purpose. And it means we recognize that these other cultural forms so often dismissed as trivial and sentimental –the break-up song, for instance, or celebrity crushes– can be politically powerful, if only we could teach everyone the right moves.

CFP: Punk Anteriors

Women and Performance invites submissions for a special issue, “Punk Anteriors: Genealogy, Performance, Theory.” They invite critical essays, short texts, book and performance reviews, artwork, and photo essays that examine questions relevant to a critical discussion of the intersection of punk, music, race, gender, and performance. Submission deadline: July 15, 2011.

Call for Papers – Special Issue “Punk Anteriors: Genealogy, Performance, Theory”

Revisions to the phenomenon of punk have been circulating since its inception. This issue seeks to capture the performance of those revisions, conducting a genealogical mapping of the punk movement, scenes, music, ethics, and aesthetics utilizing queer and feminist punk analytics. While some valuable feminist critiques of punk have surfaced – mainly to lionize the riot grrrl movement – many uneasy questions around race, nation, and sexuality remain unarticulated in feminist and gender performance scholarship. The interdisciplinary articles in this issue will address the performances and politics of these exclusions.

We are interested in the temporality and spatiality of punk performances through a collective and archival process. We use the word “anteriors” in the title of this issue to frame the articles that address these punk spaces and remnants, plotting what comes before, anterior to, the telling of punk’s narratives in two senses: first, in the temporal sense which interrogates punk’s resistant genealogy; and, second, in the material and spatial sense of place, bodies, and archives. What can be situated in front of the generic narratives of punk’s beginnings and mainstays as a form of resistance? Where do articulations of racial formation, gender, nation, and sexuality fit into generic notions of punk origins, temporalities, and classisms? Can punk epistemologies be used to critique punk’s exclusions?

Possible topics include:

• Race, imperialism, and punk
• Women of color feminism and punk
• Diaspora and punk
• Transnational movements and festivals
• Zines and feminist interventions
• Riot grrrl
• Underground sound and gender
• Punk, history, and ethnic studies
• Aesthetic, performance, and music
• Queer punk and other questions of sexuality in performance
• Disidentifications, performance, and punk outlaws
• Subjugated histories and punk feminism
• Art and new media performance
• Punk responses to theory and punk theories
• Supplemental spaces of punk

Women and Performance invites critical essays, short texts, book and performance reviews, artwork, and photo essays that examine these or other questions relevant to a critical discussion of the intersection of punk, music, race, gender, and performance. Submissions should be 10,000 words or less in length and adhere to the current Chicago Manual of Style, author-date format. Questions and abstracts for review are welcome before the final deadline. Complete essays and texts for consideration must be submitted by July 15th, 2011.

Please send all work to Fiona Ngô and Elizabeth Stinson via email (MSWord attachment):  ngo@illinois.edu and stinson@nyu.edu. Further submission guidelines may be found at: http://www.womenandperformance.org/submission.html. Women and Performance is a peer reviewed journal published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis.

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