Monday, November 26, 2012

How to Survive a Festival: 5 Symptoms of Praguenosis

Power. Manipulation. Madness

Pictured on bathrooms designated for Peoples with Disabilities
usually and exclusively in combination with the Women's Bathroom in Prague.


I. Filming .I

From Wednesday, November 7th to Thursday, Nov. 15th, along with Prof. Robert McCruer, I brought our class of nine students studying Transnational Queer Films to Prague in the Czech Republic for the week long Mezipatra Queer Film Festival. The theme of the festival this year: Power. Manipulation. Madness.

Over the course of seven days, we would collect in the morning at a Gender Studies office and library to discuss alongside our Prague counter-parts, lead by Prof. Katerina Kolarova from the Gender Studies department of Charles University, Prague. At night we could collect again to see two films, which had been selected beforehand, and which we would discuss the following day. In between and all around those times, we explored the Festival and Prague at large.

Flying back from Prague and the Festival, I felt myself coated with new experiences, which clung to me like a thick film, as though I had become infected by various symptoms of what came to be termed by the class as "Praguenosis." As per the production and self-reflection enacted throughout the film festival, I will project these symptoms for others to share and perhaps to spread these methods of queering to other "Hosts" (the Czech word for "Guests").

There are of course violent dangers to treating queerness as a disease, which one of the festival films put on display: How to Survive a Plague. In this film, set in documentary style, a history was constructed on the HIV/AIDs epidemic and the response of the New York based Act-Up towards creating the drug-cocktail which now allows many to live longer with the disease. The director of the film was present to respond to questions afterward, characterizing his interests in producing the film as an attempt to name heroes for the Gay Community and to provide inspiration and advice to other queer groups that continue to struggle with various afflictions.

Our tense discussion the next day brought out the consequences of creating and framing such a film as a victim and a hero narrative. It also brought our attention to threats that generates our very acts of filming and theorizing: we want to bring logic to the irrational, we want to bring the non-human/inhuman into human language, we want to put a human face on the world and then blame, mourn, and sanctify it. We want all this, in part, because we want so badly to contain things. We want to film the world and ourselves, to give it a protective coating, a way that we can handle things without being so dangerously infected by them. It is a project full of failure, because it and we are generated as symptoms of it.


II. Fuming .II

I had been warned. Once my nose and my other breathing apparatuses opened up on my return to the smoke-free terminal at Baltimore Washington Airport, I could smell how all my luggage had just become inundated with smoke.

The festival and Prague appeared to be perpetually fuming. Little smoke-stacks consisting of nicotine, tar and indignation could be seen shooting up from crowds like a miniature modeling of the city. Walking behind families became like driving behind family cars in the US (they do walk more in Prague than most US cities): you breathed in through all our pores and openings the fumigation trailing behind them.

In the U.S., in English, we distinguish between "blowing off steam" (clean, white wispy water-vapor), and "blowing smoke" or "fuming" (darker, angry, and toxic). I wonder, however, at the different attitudes in European countries, such as France (another place traditionally known for smoking), where words like "fumer" are hissed with a kind of tantalizing elegance.

Thus as my body and my clothing transformed, hybreeding with the particles that fumed through me, I physically compelled to consider the retheorization of ecology and queerness that was enacting itself on me. How does smoking, or fuming, not simply represent but directly alter the formation of my world?

An answer was offered on my plane-ride back to the States from a translation of Michel Serres's Five Senses. In it, he ponders shadow and mists: "Shadow leaves everything variable and mist makes everything variable -- continuously, whether broken or unbroken...Darkness does not betray, no does shadow: in them a thing remains a thing, veiled or not, visible or not, always accessible through touch. Fog betrays, completely fills the environment with potential things. Whether they are objects or vapours --- we cannot tell. Night unsettles phenomenology  mist disturbs ontology. Shadow reinforces the distinction between being and appearance, mist blurs it" (Serres 69-70).

There is a coming-together at Festivals and in Prague that does not so easily occur in other places in the US. Things are set apart in the States, hiding so many devices that form and bring things together. The smoke of Prague betrays the work ontologizing between bodies. Not only are our bodies connected by a shared breath, but changes in the make-up of one changes the functioning of another.

How much is Fuming not a key component of any Queer action, especially in a festival setting: blowing smoke into the world to not only make them pay attention to you, smell you, taste you, but imbibe you and through that disturb their body's sense of identity and ontology. Let us waft our burning bodies so as to draw the flames to our neighbors so that they may take heed not only of our problems, but how our proximity and penetration spread like a fiery disease through our collective veins and breathing passages.


III. Clogging .III

Indeed one gains a new appreciation of space and bodies just passing through a festival in Prague. The very idea of space, much less personal space, is an articulation of separateness, exceptionality, a country of people set-apart. In Prague, that theory was overrun by the force of "togetherness" which impresses itself on the body, as the American premise of personal-space is ignored and modified.

From the streets down into the subway, bodies bumped, grinded, enfolded, and joined as floods of people migrated from Prague 6 (the old "Communist" era area) to Prague 1 (the old "Medieval" center). This was more than simply a hustle and bustle, however, as when what I regarded as "free space" did open up, there was no rush to occupy it. Instead, people seemed comfortable where they are; even if you felt they were too near for your comfort.

One of the students studying with us in Prague asked me while we were traveling through the city, "why [Americans] moved around so much?" At first I tried answering by talking about the demands of jobs and the desire for a fresh-start, until I realized her question challenged my precepts deeper. She did not mean why did one person relocate several times throughout their career, she wanted to know why people left home to begin with. What is wrong with home?

In Prague, like many places, including among the working-class and immigrant populations in the US, people live where they grew up. Home is where their families and friends were. Work was created by those communities and the benefits of that work fed those communities. In the United States, people are encouraged to leave home as soon as possible and keep on going. A person collects college friends, then moves on to their first job, then a second, then they may meet someone and start a family which encourages them to move to yet another place that is more "family friendly." Indeed, I began to wonder, "why do we move around so much?"

While the flight into the city and other such mechanisms have associated queerness with waywardness, like one perpetual motion machine, how about queerness as affirming what Freud considered lingering a bit too long in a place? How might queering, especially at a festival, not be enacted with powerful consequences by Clogging? Bodies coming together, occupying a space, forcing the way we regard movement, proximity and bodies to relate to us. Even if the response is negative, by slowing down the constant movement, paths are altered and things that are supposed to be separate touch in unexpected ways. 


IV. Trashing .IV

What is trash except some-thing that is not supposed to be some-where?

Street-trash, Euro-trash, Trashy-Queers getting together and trashing the powers that be: this is Queer Film Festival. No doubt the loud intrusion of so many bodies into Prague for the Festival raised some noses. We clogged the public transportation and filled the air with our fuming. And, we produced a lot of trash.

There is an ecological argument to be made against things like Festivals, against the products and collection of so much waste and garbage that such a collective of people are bound to bring to an area. As the bin in  my hostel room evidenced, I mark Prague by all the things I leave behind when I visit.

Watching festival films such as Shemale Snails, which brought together the queer developments of the human with and in the developments of the surrounding woods, through long, wide shots and series of object-focused images that mapped the traces of pollution and trashing throughout a human-nonhuman ecology. The forest became disturbed, uglified, queered by the trash and the trashed forest became queerly beautiful by a prolonged gaze on it.

Such films disturb the divide between the human and natural world, this was nature and this was culture together, mingled, enacting an ecology with trashes the ontological space of the other. Ian Bogost writes about Metonymy as well as Metaphorism, which come about when things come into such trashy contact. The film in its sequential pictures, encourages us to list: river, sludge, trees, car-tire, bush, ribbons, fish, coke-cans, hill, diapers, snails, shemales. Put beside one another, you see them together and yet distinct; their contact not only alters both (forms metaphor, where one thing is not "like" another, where one thing translates the other into it self) but defines both (one thing, then another, then another, separated by a pause, a comma, a point of rupture).

There is no nature without humans and there is no human outside of nature. Trash demonstrates this to us with uncomfortable clarity. When we trash something or someone, we penetrate it with little bits of otherness. Something is produced, something is lost. Joy and mourning. Life and absence. Things that are not supposed to touch are brought together and ontology is disturbed. We go out and party at a festival together and come home thoroughly trashed.


V. Sexting .V

Surviving with Praguenosis, I contemplate the power of Meme Theory, which treats units of information as living things which use humans and technology to reproduce themselves.Sex and texts are both infectious and polluting. In the same way gender, sexuality and their various body parts and fluids spill across the planet, humans are busy at work translating everything into language towards Jacques Derrida's announced (Utopian) existence wherein there is "nothing outside the text." In this way, sexting is a wonderful tool and evidence of these infections partnering up and reproducing across every body they touch. 

The films we watched at this Queer Film Festival were surprisingly scant in displays of sex, either as intercourse or the display of gendered bodies. Where and when we did see bodies, it was most often the naked gay or bisexual white male. Thus while the theme of the Festival: Power. Manipulation. Madness. opened up many avenues for the films to delve down beyond the formula of homonormative treatments of the body, it did not challenge the dominate systems that control the sex of the texts.

While Shemale Snails and Lovely Man both flirt with intersex and transgender issues, both abject these possibilities as failed variants of gay masculinity. The former portrays a symbolic death of the queer gendered identity via a funeral and a baptismal-like washing, while the later closes on a final short of the trans prostitute back in male clothes, returning to his identity as father, surrendering the means and intent to transition, and destined by the logic of the film to be killed-off within the next 24 hrs. Furthermore, when we do see both of these bodies naked, it is in the context of being a beautiful male body in the shower/bath, having torn off the failed markers of their alternative gender.

Likewise, while Cloudburst and the Hanging Gardens invite us to read them as disability, age, fat, and women's films, in neither do we see any naked bodies other than able-bodied, young, gay male bodies. The former, about a pair of lesbians later in life fleeing the medical incarceration of one to Canada, closes only with a failed marriage ceremony and the death of one of them; while the later literally kills and buries the disabled-fat self and leaves behind or exiles the queer women of the film, following the wealthy white gay male in his red-convertible as he goes back to the city to begin his homonormative family with his boyfriend and newly discovered daughter. The only type of reproductive and life-sustaining sex (gender & sexual contact) appears to be in the end of these films, however ironically, being a young, white gay male.

Thus the Sexts of the Festival still struggle to break out of their compulsory narratives, despite the invitation to introduce disability, transgender, bisexuality, race, nationality, war, and religion into the mix. It may very well be evidence that the Power and Manipulation to produce and present such films in such a festival, still do incite a kind of Madness which is a perpetual return to stereotyped models. More than once while watching the films, I found myself coming to terms with the treatment of "other" queers which remain "other" to the nominally Queer Movement, by viewing them all as about a kind of paranoid depression.

Filming, Fuming, Clogging, Trashing, and even Sexting can penetrate areas and occupy them, but they can also cause a reproduction of a new norm that can recode all other possibilities into itself; freeze the body into a changeless form. The Sexting White Gay Male continues to use these technologies to reproduce himself again and again, spamming us as we attempt to write another code, another story, another language by which we may know ourselves and live. Thus as a form of Praguenosis, this kind of Sexting demonstrates how the lives of some, continue to foreclose the lives of others in something like what our class's visiting scholar Jasbir Puar calls bodies "marked for life" and bodies "marked for death."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Doing Things w/Science: Literary Scholars Love Science

Guest Post by Leigha McReynolds


Read Only: Love//Science.exe

As a general rule, literary scholars love science. In spite of the stereotype that any person who ended up in the humanities must be inherently incapable of succeeding in a STEM field, the truth is that we appreciate science as much as any of our fellow nerds in biology, psychology, or physics PhD programs. I know plenty of us follow “I Fucking Love Science” on Facebook. Science is a field of constant discovery and production of knowledge. Scientists create dramatic and compelling narratives and theories about the human body, the ecosystem, the universe, etc. These are efforts that literary scholars also value and duplicate in their unique disciplinary ways. 

True, most of us really dislike, and often are not very good at, math. This accounts for our antipathy to mathematics and engineering, and our complete inability to split up a check without a cell phone calculator. In fact, math is often what keeps us from pursuing science as our field of study. That’s one reason, among many, that I’m in an English, not an astrophysics, PhD program. And the more English scholars I meet, the more I see my experience is not unique. 

But it’s not just the math that drives us from science to the humanities in general, and literary studies in particular. We’d rather read novels than textbooks, and we’d rather write papers than take tests. On the one hand this represents a disciplinary divide between ways of receiving and measuring knowledge. More importantly, however, it signifies disciplinary differences between between what is valuable knowledge and how knowledge can or should be appropriately used. Literary scholarship allows a freedom to theorize and pick our “evidence” from anything we can find in culture. 

In the past thirty or forty years, literary scholars and historians have made significant contributions to the history of science. This is because our way of viewing the world as narrative, and our history of approaching cultural artifacts as socially constructed, allows us to see that science is also a cultural phenomenon. What science is, how science is done, the authority science has over certain areas of knowledge, has evolved like all of our cultural institutions. Literary scholars are in a unique position to trace that evolution. 


"Reading for the Plot"

(Also the title of a work of literary theory by Peter Brooks, and one of the first theoretical works I read outside of class for my first literary research paper.) 

I read for the plot. Occasionally I will read a book so fast, just to know what happens, that after finishing it I immediately re-read it because I know I’ve missed things, like character names. My fondness for plot is why I’m drawn to “genre fiction” which used to be non-canonical but has recently made its way into mainstream literary scholarship. So when I was finally in charge of my own scholarship - I was out of coursework and crafting an exam list which only had to include things I wanted to study - poetry, realism, and modernism were out. 

Since then, I’ve read almost exclusively in mystery fiction, sensation fiction, and science fiction; genres that are known for their plots over, say, the psychological development of their characters. (I could talk about whether or not that’s an accurate assessment, but that’s another topic.) I also started pursing my interest in science. This was easy for two reasons: 1) science in literature is currently a hot topic and 2) genre fiction consistently engages with science, whether it’s forensics, psychology, or chemistry. 

What surprised me, and what’s now the topic of my dissertation, is that through their engagement with science, these genre fictions offer a more radical view of plot than I expected. In fact, I argue that their engagement with science actually destabilizes plot and narrative, working on a logic of relativity (yes, Einstein’s relativity) that questions our assumptions about truth and reality. I also see this working in contemporary science fiction. 

At my last conference presentation I drew connections between Wilkie Collins, a nineteenth century British sensation novelist, and Ursula Le Guin, pointing out how each author, through a sustained engagement with their contemporary scientific moment, produces a narrative where the reader can’t be sure what really happened. That’s a convention associated with the strange experiments of modernism and post-modernism, not plot-reliant genre fictions. Science makes narrative do strange things.    


Avoiding the Dangers of Relativism

In my academic work, I privilege indeterminacy, freedom, and relativism. I question what it means for something to be “fact” and investigate how the facts of one narrative, either literary or scientific, are not the facts of another. However, I in no way want to argue that because human experience is subjective, we can just make up whatever we want. That’s a dangerous position, especially in this political climate, when the far right is rejecting established facts of history, science, and social reality. I hope that instead my work calls attention to the construction of facts and narrative over time, and reveals the power of that construction. The implicit ethical imperative is that we need to be very careful how we write our narratives of truth, whether we write them as novelists, literary scholars, or physicists.  


Leigha McReynolds is a doctoral student of English 
at the George Washington University, 
in the 19th C. British Literature concentration;
w/a focus on Hypnotism + Science-Studies.
(She's also a competitive ballroom dancer & xenophile)