Sunday, January 29, 2012

Becoming the First Person in Romeo + Juliet

"There is first a discourse that precedes and enables that "I" 
and forms in languages the constraining trajectory of its will. 
There is no "I" who stands behind discourse" and executes its volition... 
On the contrary, the "I" only comes into being by being called, named...
The impossibility of full recognition...of ever fully inhabiting the name
implies the instability and incompleteness in the subject-formation. 
The "I" is thus a citation of the place of the "I" in speech,...
a certain priority and anonymity with respect to the life it animates"
Judith Butler, "Critically Queer"


What is in a Name?

This last Friday, the Medieval and Early Modern Institute at the George Washington University held a talk in which we discussed, among other things, the priority of the ontological subject (in this case an old Casket) over its name and network. The issue at hand seemed to be how a body can be an identifiable thing, with its own distinct dignity, and also be composed of multiplicities and participate in a wider ecology. Can we think in terms of proper names and also in terms of networks? Of Course, but we find that while the named assemblage becomes all the more important for being so called, the act of naming is not a very distinct act.

Michel Foucault performatively asks "What is an Author?" and "What difference does it make who is speaking?" A reactionary might see this rhetorical move which assumes either "everything" or "nothing" is the corresponding answer and that these are answers are equivalent. Of course Foucault would not serve his author-function if the outcome of his work is that we fall into universalism and through it into ideology which is unseeing or uncaring about distinctions or disproportionate flows of power. The author-function in fact is one such very process which notes distinctions and discursive networks of power.

Judith Butler speaks of the place of the "I" and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari speak of haecceities, masses, molar identities, bodies without organs, packs, and the list goes on for all the different ways we can look at named bodies. It might be surprising that so much attention is given to "individuals" by thinkers we spend so much time focusing on the decentered and networked aspects of things, but it would be impossible to think it networks without some sort of way to think in masses; its like trying to imagine a forest without trees.

Naming serves on one level, a practical function. While a named thing is no less networked for being identified by certain boundaries, it is useful to be able to refer to a specific set of things because we are incapable or acting or perceiving all things at once. Thus naming is on one level an act of humility, we cannot know or serve all things simultaneously. We can talk to a person, we can pick up a rock, we can pet a dog, but it would be harder to talk to America, pick up an ecosystem or play fetch with a species. Also, there is an ontological level in which this assemblage is qualitatively distinct from any other part of the network, at any other time or place.

As we participate in transformation, however, it is likewise pragmatic to change names, either through remarking the boundaries of their associated objects (which is perpetually slipping and growing) or by changing the name when a name's signified boundaries are too rigid to helpfully describe the bodies it describes (such as Romeo and Juliet's family names or the transgender person who is transitioning, or a Catholic after Confirmation). Also, the recognition that bodies exist in multiple networks at once and can be identifies by multiple names at once, each one drawing attention to a specific assemblage or dynamic set of relations.


O, Be Some Other Name!

“What does it mean to love somebody? It is always to seize that person in a mass, extract him or her from a group, however small, in which he or she participates, whether it be through the family only or through something else; then to find that person's own packs, the multiplicities he or she encloses within himself or herself which may be of an entirely different nature. To join them to mine, to make them penetrate mine, and for me to penetrate the other person's."
Gilles Deleuze and  Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

What is Romeo? He is just a name, but one which designates a certain network of things (probably, but contingently, a skeleton, some muscles, Leo's fabulous fair and eyes, maybe even a Hawaiian shirt). Montague of course designates another network which includes but expands beyond, and genetically through, Romeo (a bunch of human bodies, properties, corporate symbols are included here).

 The question Juliet seems to asking is whether the defined borders of these networks are inherent, essential, and unchangeable. Could we take Romeo out of the Montague network and change his name? Yes, but it would require stopping every perpetuation of the act of asserting that relationship to the network and name on him (which is quite hard). Or, we could take him out of the network, or change the behavior of the network, but keep the name. This would in fact change the function of the name Montague.

Other things can change the act/power/function of a name and this by introducing new things into the physical/discursive network which it marks. Within the drama of the play, Juliet and Romeo respectively enter into each other's networks, knitting them together, and changing the shape/flow of both.

Ironically, while the question of changing family names are a focal point of the play, we do not discover whether Romeo or Juliet take one another's names. The lack of the renaming ceremony, in fact the relative lack of (public) ceremony highlights the contingent discursive network of naming. That is: can Romeo be a Capulet or Juliet a Montague without the recognition of others?

The performative act of becoming married lacks the naming-function until it is publicly pronounced/revealed at the play's conclusion, after the lovers are already dead. Thus Romeo, who was present and effected by the marriage approaches Tybalt now as under a common name, they are functionally the same body/family.  Tybalt on the other hand is unaffected by the marriage performative, leading into a brawl which ends in Mercutio's death, Tybalt's death and Romeo's exile. Likewise, Juliet refuses to marry Paris because she is effected by being named wife of Romeo, a shared identity of Romeo + Juliet that cannot admit another in the same manner (unless Romeo is named as dead or the performative annulled). Her parents however are unaffected and unaware of her renaming and thus press the marriage to Paris, causing her to take desperate measures. 

The function of names is powerful, but contingent. A name can bestow subjectivity (Butler), can bestow authority/agency (Foucault), can sanction the integration of bodies (Deleuze and Guattari) and dictates the relation between bodies in a network (Romeo and Juliet) but each naming requires that the performative act be witnessed and received as felicitous. Of course, as Butler notes, this position of the name is unstable and incomplete. Thus we can see a reading of Romeo and Juliet as the failure of over-determined and under-determined bonds of naming.


That Name, which is no part of thee, Take All Myself

"[The Author] is a certain functional principle 
by which in our culture one limits, excludes, and chooses;
in short, by which one impedes the free circulation,
the free manipulation, the free composition, 
decomposition, and recomposition of fiction"
Michel Foucault, "The Author Function"

In the storytelling of Rome + Juliet, with the introduction of images and sound, other things may also be brought together physically and representationally to change the function of the words/names/networks. For instance, to mark the transition of Romeo's poetry from a simple listing of contradictions early in the play with Romeo's poetry of more subtle interplays later on, the movie sets up a parallel structure in the representation of Romeo as poet. When we first meet Romeo, he is sitting, smoking alone, composing his verse in a journal and recognizable music plays as he speaks. Later, in exile, we find Romeo, sitting, smoking alone, and composing his verse as the same recognizable music plays as he speaks. Both these scenes/lines exist in Shakespeare's text, but the movie uses other things to act on the scene which serve to connect them as parallel, but with notable differences: i.e. his poetry is better.

Another such instance, these are marked/named by the introduction of new actants, specifically Juliet and water. When we first meet Juliet, she is shown through the water of a tub. When Romeo first meets Juliet, she is shown through a fish tank. When Romeo and Juliet have their rising action (the marriage proposal/balcony scene) we see Juliet marked with the reflective light of a pool, then through the pool water when she and Romeo fall into it. After their climax (literally and dramatically) the lovers rework the classic argument "is that the morning bird or the nightingale?" while under the blankets, which stand in for the flow of being under water. At last in the epilogue, just after the lovers die, we are shown these exact scenes, finally resting on the image of their underwater kiss.

While this storyline exists in the text, the introduction of the water into the physical / representational space of the lines marks these scenes as participating in a network and flowing in a certain direction; in other words, it NAMES the network. The act/function of naming does not necessarily create new things or separate them from other networks, but draws out attention to regard certain things as together in a set, in a certain way.

So as we see, naming as a function and naming ability to be plastic (i.e. our ability to name any number of things) does not mean that an author/name is universalized or negated. By naming things we mark different things in a network and different networks to draw attention to how they act in certain ways and thus inform us on how we might inter-act or change with them. Thus  as noted, Romeo and Juliet might live, we might appreciate the text in new ways, a transgender person may be recognized by their gender, or a confirmed Catholic might be recognized as a member of the Church, if a community is able to participate in the act of naming, which is an ongoing, incomplete, unstable, and dynamic production of identity.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Queerness is Magic: the Erotics of My Little Pony

"My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" 
developed by Lauren Faust
airs at 10AM ET on the Hub


Queerness is magic because it can get past censors relying on recognized norms.

The erotic tones of My Little Pony may seem surprising to some, but this may be because they are hidden in plain sight. Like Samurai Jack’s sidestep of the PG rating police by committing mass killings in every episode with robots that bleed oil, My Little Pony chooses not to speak down to their audience even though it is rated for children, particularly on the topic of love and sexuality. 

MLP does not simply put up a smoke-screen by re-scripting adult situations for adorable little equines, but ironically by going queer. By using non-normative erotic objects and relationships, the show is able to engage with many sensitive issues without being called out by censors that are trained recognize erotics primarily in its heteronormative formulations; just as Samurai Jack’s censors miss violence outside the trappings of blood-n-guts.

The show’s focus on friendship, or philial love, disguises for those who don’t see beyond the possibility for reproduction, lays the basis for many non-normative sensual relationships. The tight companionship between several partners, physically affectionate and somewhat exclusive pairings, might be more obvious if the show was put into the live-action with age-accurate human actors (e.g. how the scenes in which they joke about never wearing clothes would play in such an adaption or whether this “humor” would be included may be too apparent to need exploration). 

Likewise the regular gifts of flowers, sweets, and jewelry between certain characters might likewise press on the normative censors frame of reference for what sort of relationships exist between women of any color or shape (winged, horned or hooved).



A survey of the main characters in the show will reveal that Ponyville and its associated capital city of Canterlot, sustain a population primarily consisting of women. 

With the exception of the baby-dragon, there are no speaking male characters until the end of the season 1 and when men do speak they are either children (most of the pony’s in the show are in fact revealed to be young adults well into their professional lives) or jerks who are introduced primarily to tempt a character away from the group (and into the inter-sex sphere) only to disappoint and send the pony back to their exclusively female community with renewed loyalties.  

Likewise, the baby-dragon’s overabundant and unreciprocated crush on Rarity is often the subject of farce (his attraction, despite being hetero-normative is seen as inappropriate)  and irony (as what unites “Spike” and Rarity mostly is their common, very passionate, physical and even ingestive appetite for gems).

Rainbow Dash and Applejack

For those familiar with the My Little Pony franchise, Rainbow Dash in the reboot is familiar and yet strange. What was once a painfully sweet and na├»ve stand-in for normative womanhood in pony-form has become in the new version a show a poster-child for the show’s queer tendencies. 

Still a stand-in for a cultural stereotype, Rainbow Dash now sports a pixie-cut and portrays a female masculinity which has been a staple of popular depictions of the butch lesbian. Throughout the two seasons, this ultra-competitive rainbow woman has become a regular episode partner of Applejack, a farm-girl pony who keeps Dash on her toes (or hooves) by provoking her desire to be the top-pony. 

Scenes in which other characters are looking for one or both reveal that these two can be found already having their own private adventures. Homosocial relationship, perhaps, but the nod to Brokeback Mountain is hard to miss, despite, or especially, when the horses are the lovers themselves.


Homosocial and homoerotic relationships are just the tip of this show's ice-burg. While Twilight Sparkle often seems to have an special interest in Fluttershy, F. seems constantly preoccupied in showering her affections on the (semi)sentient animals which live with her. While the critters do now speak, they regularly communicate with her through signs as she sees to more than their needs but also their desires for affection and companionship. 

Is this not in many ways a nightmare of normative society: the “crazy cat woman” who chooses an inter-species, non-procreative set of partners over those of “her own kind” and often at the expense of their attempts to engage in relationships with her. The show often treats this love triangle with humor, but also a good degree of respect, for while Fluttershy is perhaps more alienated from the other ponies, she is also one of the groups moral compasses and also one of the happiest.



Taking on another arch-type of non-normative love-interest, is Rarity, the shows “material girl” for whom diamonds are her best friends. Clothing and jewels are not only Rarity’s professional (pre)occupation but also a very sensual joy which seems to exceed her affections for others in the group of ponies (much like Fluttershy). 

Rarity's song and dance numbers on and for jewels appears to give homage to Duck Tales’s character Scrooge McDuck whose love of swimming in gold often kept him away from pursuing relationships with other persons on the show. 

Furthermore, where the shows other unicorn, Twilight Sparkle, has a range of magic which is given to her by virtue of being a unicorn, Rarity’s powers are chiefly aimed at finding gems hidden in the ground and the working of them into clothes which would allow her to keep them in close physical contact. Many who study “thing” power, such as Jane Bennett’s work on Vibrant Matter and hoarders, may recognize this as a king of inter-kingdom erotic.


Twilight Sparkle

The shows primary protagonist, Twilight-Sparkle who acts as the center of the group is in many ways the most clumsy with her inter-pony relationships. The driving concept for the series is that Twilight lives in Ponyville because she is there on assignment by Princess Celestia to learn about friendship, after a pilot episode revelation that she has up to this point alienated herself into her work at the expense of all other relationships (with the exception of her often mistreated baby-dragon-assistant). Twilight’s love is explicitly “magic” but tacitly is herself. 

She loves magic in a sense, but not for its own sake but her abilities in attaining and controlling it. In that sense, and more, she is a narcissist: she is her own love-object. Her queerness is not only the erotics of knowledge and power, but of self-knowledge and self-empowering. She exists as a (w)hole in the community into which resources enter and are not repeated or passed on in their normative patterns. 

The very demarcation as her being a practitioner of “magic” is also a reference to the “deviant” and marginal interests, as well as the shows later emphasis on female communes. Thus, we can see how the show’s after the colon subtitle “Friendship is Magic” is supposed to underline the shows premised goal is to introduce a replacement love object for Twilight and shake her from her queer narcissism; which is not outright abject but at very least situated as insufficient in its extreme expression.


Pinky Pie

Chasing Twilight most is the party-obsessed land-pony PinkyPie. Whenever this party-girl is on screen she is in the midst of some sensational rapture. She loves the taste and smell of food. She loves song and dance. She loves bright colors and standing too close for the comfort of the other ladies. Where Twilight stands as the frozen and self-contained character, PinkyPie is explosive with jouissance. 

Her movements are erratic and even her temporality appears non-linear as she reveals the power to predict and act on events in the future before and as if they are happening.  While Twilight wants knowledge and is “the smart one” of the group, PinkyPie appears if not the unintelligent character, then at least the one to whom knowledge is relevant only as an experience of the moment. 

If Twilight is the psychoanalytic, alienated lover, Pinky is the Deleuzian schizophrenic who remains in constant flight, made up of a multitude of drives and explosive in her powers to make connections and become nearly anything (and she apparently has the costumes/prosthetics to facilitate what personalities she might explore).