Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Morpheus Database: the Material Life of Data

"A book is a friend whose face is constantly changing"

Andrew Lang

Coming Soon...

We Are Groot: Ecofeminism in Guardians of the Galaxy

"Learn your genders, man!"

Rocket Raccoon
the Guardians of the Galaxy

A Galaxy without Women

As a surprise powerhouse of the box-office throughout the Summer of 2014, the Guardians of the Galaxy proved that you could revamp many of the charms of the 1970s and '80s, while bringing with it many of the imagined gender norms along for the ride. Boasting a soundtrack nostalgic for another time, "Guardians" follows a plucky young man plucked from 1980s America and thrown into a space adventure where he grows up to be an interstellar plunderer without losing the humor and chauvinism that marks memories of the lost decade. 

A successful blend of Han Solo (Star Wars), Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly), and Andy Dwyer (Parks and Recreation), Peter Quill is a goofy, trigger fingered ladies man known across the galaxy more for being a sexual predator than for his exploits under his self-aggrandizing title, "Star Lord." Performed by Chris Pratt, an otherwise obnoxious and all too formulaic bad boy is likable despite the role set for him. Indeed, Guardians director, James Gunn, has been upfront in stating that he cast the role with the desire that Pratt would bring much of his puppy-dog self into the role. If a latent chauvinist is going to be your protagonist, making you smile while you shake your head is a good move, especially when it is going to be shaking no matter what.

Despite a likable leading man, however, chauvinistic undercurrent of the nostalgia driving Guardians runs wider and deeper than its main character. It is not news to report that Marvel Studios and comic book culture in general, has been slow to adapt stories populated by leading women, and Guardians is no exception. In the comics, a few significant shifts have taken place to attempt to answer these critiques, especially with the significant re-casting going on across the Marvel universe (the mantle of Spider-Man and Captain America now rest on the shoulders of men of color, Captain Marvel and Thor are now women, X-Men comics follow an all female core-group). Yet in the Marvel films, the central action occur primarily in a universe populated by men. When the Guardian's cast and character list was posted, there were a few surprises, with actors of color featuring key roles, but in secondary positions where the run the risk of becoming token characters; able to be pointed at for the perfunctory gesture towards diversity but not allowed to affect the mainline, able-bodied, hetero, white male plot.

Walking out of the movie theaters after my first viewing of Guardians, I was pleasantly surprised by the humor, writing, acting and careful attention to tone, but still unimpressed as a gender studies critique. Gamora, the green-skinned assassin played by Zoe Saldana was woefully underutilized. While she was set up as "the deadliest woman in the universe," she is brought down within minutes of her first on screen battle with an ease that plays into the comic tone of the film. As the plot progresses, her power seems to erode further. Her life is saved several times by the bumbling and combatively unimpressive male lead, to whom she later shows signs of falling under the force of his kingsized libido. Finally, in the rising action, when Star-Lord's life is in danger (a perfect opportunity for her to show herself his equal or superior in the role of savior), Gamora is easily restrained by a coupe of space-pirates whose upper body strength and gentle hold of her do not seem on par with the nominal threat she is supposed to offer. Indeed, the Marvel team seems to have forgotten, or never seriously considered, Gamora as a strong player.

No single woman can or should be expected to hold back the waves of patriarchy in a comic and film culture providing a short-list of non-male alternatives. In this respect, I was ready to give Gamora her due for at least carrying a sword as opposed to the bow and arrow (or pistols) that seemingly every sci-fi/fantasy female lead seems to be given upon conception. Before I could write off the Guardians for defending a galaxy without women, it was pointed out to me that another player may add feminist reinforcement to the conversation. "What about Groot?" they asked.

Who is Groot?

At first I was drawn into the habit established by the comic and film of referring to him as another "he," but why be so quick to go with the seminal flow of the film (that literally paints walls of the movie)? If plants do not so easily fall into the sexual binary of male and female, then presumably neither does Groot. While the pronoun "he" may impart more subjectivity to Groot than "it," it might as well have been "she." The default masculine identity seems to be a biproduct principally of long tradition (stemming back to St Augustine) of taking the male case  when the gender of a character is indeterminate. Despite the pressure to take the lead of the men in Guardians, as a favorite of movie-goers across the board, many fans are reading Groot "against the grain" as female, queer, or trans.

Several fan sites (especially those devoted to fan-fiction and erotica) have already noted that Groot's gender performance intermixes cultural signs from many different recognizable categories. On the one hand, Groot is a walking, talking, punching hunk of wood. His shape and tendency to grow larger when excited makes him perhaps an over-determined phallic symbol. On the other hand, Groot is recognized as one of the more gentle and nurturing characters in the series, characterized by a scene where he grows a flower out of his hand and gives it to a small child. If his tall and narrow form represents the masculine, then the climactic scene where Groot sacrifices himself/herself by becoming a kind of womb to protect to other Guardians, answers back with a strongly charged symbol of femininity. Borrowing from traditional markers (wood/flower) and characteristics (violent/nurturing), Groot freely intermixes them. Beyond mere symbols, the growth of flowers, luminescent spores, and extra limbs, the vegetal fluidity of Groot's body points to a sexual indeterminacy common among plants. In the case of this sentient tree, however, the degree of speed and self-control over a fluctuating form demonstrates a more queer or trans relation to embodiment than a fixed gender type.

In their first scene, Groot is chastised by his partner, Rocket Racoon for needing to "Learn your genders, Man," when Gamora is grabbed instead of Star Lord. Despite being passed over as a joke, what can Groot's indeterminate gender and seeming disregard for the gender binary teach us as viewers about the queer undercurrents of the masculine galaxy the Guardians unconsciously occupy? Genders for bodies and words may be a naturalized feature of English and many romance languages, but for non-human, non-native speakers, the cultural assumptions that inform the use of gendered terminology are as strange as the words themselves. Like Drax the Destroyer, who does not understand metaphor, what may be read as a passing joke about the mental impairment of a slow, hulking character with a limited vocabulary, may instead be read as a critique of the ideology of gender and disability ungirding language. If Groot himself/herself did not develop in the context of a gender binary, why be so quick to adopt a seemingly arbitrary and over-simplifying division of bodies? Reading Groot's relation to gender pronouns as a resistance rather than a failure to the language of difference opens up more possibilities than the joke about stupid aliens might gather in laughs.

Return of the Earth Mother

In a space adventure, set among all steel interiors and austere star-lit backdrops, having a character that represents the fecundity of nature sets a nice contrast. In this way, by casting Groot as the mute assistant to an interstellar scoundrel (Rocket Racoon), Guardians follows the lead of Star War's duo, Chewbacca and Hon Solo. Beyond the trope of the funny and the straight man comedy relief, Groot's leafiness and Rocket's furriness work together to balance out the tech-heavy galaxy around them. This tension adds humor and a sense of danger, as the pair sticks out in a crowd of iron-clad humans. What underlines this difference is the long tradition in literature of providing this contrast along gender lines. According to the narrative of civilization vs nature, the harsh metallic culture is marked as masculine in contrast to the gentler blooming wilderness. Thus, whether or not Groot is anatomically female, he is identified by the genre as occupying the feminine position as representative of the Earth Mother in journey through the stars and planets of Father Sky.

Collecting tropes from across literature, Groot becomes characterized by signs and narratives typically given to goddesses of the woods. Like Hestia, wherever Groot goes, plants spring to life. Like Diana, Groot is quiet and virginal, or at very least capable of reproducing (himself) asexually. Like Hecate, Groot has changing faces, shapeshifting as he moves a collected mystical calm and emitting sharp offshoots during violent outbursts. According to Jungian psychoanalysis and structuralist anthropology of the early 20th century, the Earth Mother is constituted by a variety of faces that cycle through different aspects of nature. As such a synthesis, the Earth Mother is considered the feminine counter-part of the masculine Father Sky. These broad categories have been used to explain the dual nature of humanity as Mother Nature represents the material and primal desires while Father Sky represents the spiritual and rational. As the mysterious shapeshifter, Groot taps into these reservoir of feminine chaos to show that whatever the artificial social constraints established, life will find a way. Indeed, this chaotic vitality is critical to the plot, as Groot sees the Guardians out of several impossible situations (typically imposed on them by technology, e.g. prisons, guns) by taking on a new surprising shape that allows the plot to keep moving.

Perhaps the most powerful narrative of the Earth Mother folded into Groot's story is the story of Mother / Crone / Maiden, Fall / Winter / Spring, or Life / Death / Rebirth repeated throughout (especially religious) literature. When we meet Groot, he appears as a hulking adult of considerable size and maturity. Although his intelligence is sometimes questioned, there is no doubt cast that Groot exists in his species' equivalent of the young adulthood of the other main characters. In fact, according to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Groot is one of its oldest characters, both in the years he has been alive and his publication date. At this point, he exists somewhere between the status of Fall/Mother and Winter/Crone. When Groot puts it self up for sacrifice by growing into the shape of a cage surrounding the other characters to protect them from an explosion and fall when an enemy ship is being destroyed, one cannot miss how he has turned himself into a synthesis of a (Mother's) womb and a (Crone's) tomb. The way these two status's mirror one another is not missed in mythology and psychoanalytic readings that see the Earth Mother as the place from which life emerges and where one goes upon death. After considerable damage and presumed death, when Groot emerges from a fragment of his former self as a baby sapling (Spring/Maiden), he concludes a cycle of regeneration represented by the feminine figure of Nature. A critical eco-feminism draws power from the literary tradition of the Earth Mother figure by emphasizing the interweaving of change and disparate embodiments. Groot demonstrates that women and nature are never singular nor restricted to one form.

"We Are" Feminism

As a phallic signifier of masculinity, Groot may embody the Cartesian sentiment at the root of modern individualism in stating ad infinitum,  "I am Groot." Yet as the voice actor of Groot, Vin Diesel, argues in many of his interviews, each time one thinks they hear "I am Groot," the intonation is subtly different and reflects a contextually unique thought. Groot is a creature constantly changing his form and signification yet bound together under a single figure. The assertion "I am" is then not simply a philosophical assertion of particularity, but of a spectrum of being. In this sense, we can approach Groot's surprise statement as he envelops his fellow Guardians in a protective womb made of his own body, "We Are Groot" as not a radical departure from his relation to himself but an clarification of what it means to be Groot. To state "I am Groot" points not towards the self-reliant mountain man in a log cabin, but to the eco-feminist collective that looks to transform power from a centrally located and policed perimeter into a dynamic ecology of distributed being and power.

To be Groot is to be the many in the one, a monumental figure that can be broken and yet regrow to full height if ever one of his splinters are nurtured. In place of the single male hero, on whose lone shoulders the success or failure of a political movement depends, here we see a representation of collectivity. Yes, the group can be broken, but never destroyed. While Groot is seemingly annihilated in the process of protecting his community from the violence of a lone male figure bent on dominating the galaxy, Groot regrows when Rocket Raccoon picks up on the fragments of his friends, plants it in dirt and waters it. Slowly this piece responds to the resurgence in care being coming to life in time to perform a dance for the audience as the credits roll. A collective can be broke but will return again and again with new life so long as the many parts that may it up are given resources and support. Indeed, Groot's future is assured because he protects the members of his community, e.g. Rocket Raccoon. In this respect, it is not merely the parts that have a responsibility to the collective but the collective is dependent on its parts. One never knows knows from what parts destruction may arise not where new life may spring.

Check out more on queer ecologies

A Queer Confessor to the Masses: On Matthew 19:12

"For there are eunuchs 
who were born that way from their mother's womb; 
and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; 
and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs 
for the sake of the kingdom of heaven"

Gospel of Matthew 19:12 

In a previous post, Eunuchs for the Kingdom,
I examined how Matthew 19:12 opens up the ontology of transgender bodies
from a medical and social trans identities to an instrumental use.
Here, I examine how the same passage may be redeployed
for the purposes of a critical trans politics 
that reaches across difference and periodization.

Queer Confessor to the Masses

To be marked as Transgender is to become a storyteller. Stories and histories are inscribed on our bodies from all directions. It is a common occurrence, seemingly about a 50/50 chance, when I am traveling in public, that someone will come up to me and begin telling me a story from their life. Whether I am on a bus, train, or airplane, the scene seems to replay itself in strikingly similar ways. Often I am reading a book or listening to music, when I notice that a person is standing very close to me and looking in my direction. Usually they appear to be a cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual male and they have a look in their eyes like they have something they crave to tell me.

"What?" I ask, leaning in after they say something almost inaudible. They speak up a little louder but not enough to be readily heard by others around. "I just wanted to say," they begin, "I've seen you around." That's probably true. While as a trans-woman I am fairly passable as a cis-woman, to the passenger looking for something interesting I often seem to provide a puzzle on their ride to wherever they are going. I am tall, strong bodied, a deep voice, and with a queer butch edge to my otherwise femme demeanor. It's hard not to notice when I've been noticed. The frequency with which people don't merely sneak glances, but boldly stare was shocking when I first transitioned. In any case, I am used to people noticing me, for better or for worse.

What follows in these interviews is perhaps surprising: without even telling me their name or asking for mine, the unexpected traveling companion proceeds unprompted to tell me a story from their life. At first this trend confused me. If they had been staring at me, interested, puzzled, one would suppose they would come at with prying questions. Instead, what I end up receiving from nominally my cis-gendered, straight visitor is a tale of their queer escapades: the halloween they cross-dressed, their secret fetish for women's underwear, the party at which they kissed another man for the first time. Sometimes I follow up with questions: how did that make you feel? What style cut do you like to wear? Would you do it again? After a short-while, having shared their story, they leave. In the end, the encounter was more about them than about me.

"I'm like a queer confessor to the masses," I tell my friends afterwards. Like a priest, I am approached by strangers who tell me their queer/trans transgressions against the hetero-normate ideal around which they orient their lives.  In a sense, simply by listening, I am handing out pardons for their heterosexuality and masculinity. They approach my body as though it is some relic or confessional where they can whisper their secrets in safety then walk away back into their straight world, unburdened by a past that is no longer locked inside them. I become a figure of that abject past, a dark hole where they can safely dispose of the parts of them that they don't want to be seen in the light of the present day. Psychoanalysts, like Slavoj Zizek, Lee Edelman, and Will Stockton, argue that the desire and disgust of the queer body derives from their symbolic representation of the nothingness, the lack, the death-drive at the heart of all desire. God and the soul are likewise read as signs of the Lack par excellence. In this way, being queer and being a confessor (a stand-in for the big Nothing) are overlapping positions in the social imagination. 

Yet approaching the transgender body through the hermeneutics of psychoanalysis covers over lived bodies. The desire, lack and nothingness in concern is not the trans body in question, but the person who marks us, turns us into metaphors for their own subject formation. I think of Alison Kafer's encounters with devotees, summarized in her essay "Desire and Disgust," where nominally cis-gender able-bodied heterosexual men look on her as a fetish for their own desire about amputation. Despite holding her up as something holy, a sacred relic to be devoted to, their desire runs on and turns into disgust. Her body becomes a symbol of the lack and the nothingness inside the devotees, as my body does for those who come to confess their queer sins. The history of her life and mine is an interruption in the story that appropriates the body of the other. This is the body-sized hole in the devotees' and psychoanalysts' narratives: our lives either don't matter or are unspeakable. We are conscripted to serve as sites of devotion and confession for the public's stories, histories, and formations but we are denied the ability to claim our own.

The Castration of a Salesman

Every so often, however, the screen between the person sharing their story and me comes up, as the projection of nothingness or restoration begins to fade away and we are able to encounter each other as two vulnerable bodies with our own scars and histories. One instance where this moment of contact erupted occurred as I was on a train from Chicago to Washington D.C. in the winter a few years ago. At first, the scene resembled the usual script point for point. I was sitting in the observation car reading a book on the history of castration when an elderly gentleman was suddenly looming over me. "I've seen you around," he began. I put down my book, leaving my forefinger on the page, and nodded, wondering if this would be a long exposition. He looked me up and down, then looked at my book, with the title "CASTRATION" in bold print on the side and pointed. "I saw what you were reading," he said, "and I have a story for you." Once again I nodded and tried to wait patiently as a pregnant pause filled the space between his slow words. "Is it alight with you if I tell you later?" he asked, hesitantly. "Sure," I told him, "I'll be here all morning." He shuffled off and I returned to my book, expecting not to see him again. He seemed to have lost his nerve.

About two hours later, I was shocked out of footnoting a page by the man's sudden reappearance in the seat across from me. He was in the process of unfolding a notebook and a mechanical pencil. I consolidated my workspace and tried not to seem too surprised as I welcome him back. "I needed to write things down," he explained. "You see, I have this *condition* that makes short-term memory quite difficult for me," he went on, emphasizing the word "condition" in a lower voice. "I've found I need to write down what I want to say or else I tend to wander off or repeat myself." As he told me this, he clicked the pencil and checked off the first item on his notebook. Glancing over at his notes, I surmised that I was in for long story and moved to get more comfortable in my seat. Recollecting the story the man shared with me is difficult both because of its content and the form in which it was told. The events he shared with me were fragmented and suggested an unspoken association rather than proceeding as a targeted and linear narrative. At first I tried to discern how one vignette unfolded into the next or what the point of it all was supposed to be, but soon I surrendered my internal editorializing. After all, he was not putting forth an argument but sharing his life with me. 

What can be articulated is that he was once a traveling salesman, peddling roofs with his partner around the southern United States for the decades after World War I. He had been raised mostly in various boarding schools and relished telling me about the various boyhood companions he had. How many of them went with him into the war, he never said, but admitted that after he returned from active service he missed many of them dearly. When he was back in the States, he married quickly and soon got into selling roofs on the recommendation of a friend. The sales-trips would last weeks at a time, as his partner and him drove from town to town, staying in hotels along the way. These were the best years of his life, he told me, taking a break from checking off points on his list and getting very quiet as he looked down at the table. These intermissions became more and more frequent as he elaborated on the flow of their sale's pitch, the types of roofs they sold to customers across the country, and the adventures they had traveling from place to place. Then suddenly his story broke off again. I wasn't sure how many years had past or where he was in the country (or how much time had passed or where we were in our train-ride either for that matter), but halting in the middle of describing how his partner and him were trying to fix their car during one of many breakdowns, he looked up at me with tears in his eyes and went quiet.

"I'm sorry," he said dabbing his eyes with an old and soiled handkerchief, "I can't say any more about that." Shifting the story again to another time, apparently some time much later in his life, he mentioned that his wife was very happy when he came off the road, after which time, he never saw his partner. What his life at home was like was even harder to discern, as his voice had become shaky and the pauses turned from interruptions or turns in the narrative to a part of the mode of his speech. Whatever happened, working close to home and his wife, seemed to feel like a long fallow period of his life. Something had been lost. Something he would not name, except to say, jumping back to the previous stage of his story without transition, "we never did anything, my partner and I. We couldn't." Looking over at my books on castration, he pointed with the knuckle of his forefinger and told me, "but after it was over, I thought of Matthew 19:12, and that's when I came so close to doing THAT." He put down the notebook again, put his hands folded upwards in his lap and stared down at them. "I couldn't do it," he stammered, making it even harder to understand what "it" was in this context. "I wanted, I wanted, but I couldn't," he continued, "and cutting it off seemed like the only answer."

This time the narrative broke apart and never returned. I offered a few soothing words with sympathetic eyes. The old salesman had fallen into pieces. We sat together for some time in relative quiet, him adjusting himself and me nodding in affirmation. "Sorry," he said, beginning to put away his notebook, "when I saw you and saw your books, I thought..." He looked out the window for a while, seemingly uncertain how to proceed. "It's okay," I told him, "thank you for sharing that with me." "Can I ask you for one last thing?" he concluded, "can we pray together?" This request, like much of what preceded it, caught me completely off guard. Hesitantly I probed what he meant by that. Extending out his hands, he took mine, and finished by asking for God to look over us and guide us on our way. "Amen," I uneasily echoed with him as he picked up his things and left the car. 

Children of the Knife

I call myself a queer confessor to the masses in circumstances such as these, but in this case, when parts of the exchange were the closest  I've ever come to performing a rite of Reconciliation, I did not feel like I had just undergone a ritual, sincere or farcical. It was, however, a return or a rebinding of a community brought together not by a feeling of wholeness or restoration, but of shared fragmentation of our bodies, stories, and pasts. It is a community defined not necessarily by any particular embodiment or identity. A reductive reading of the salesman's story would be to describe him as a gay man, even a repressed gay man. Yet he is not heterosexual either. In the end, he never confirmed or denied his castration. He never uttered the word eunuch or transsexual to describe either him or me. 

Yet on this journey he saw me as a sort of kindred with a shared association to the cutting off of body parts with whom he could share his story. What brought us together, across difference in time periods and modes of articulating ourselves was a shared relation to what Judith Butler calls "sharp technologies" (Doing Justice to Someone). Real or imagined, material or metaphorical, present or past, the power of edged devices has formed us. We are discursively children of the knife.

While the circumstances of becoming physical or metaphorical eunuchs may have pressed on us from outside, there is a sense through which we can "become eunuchs for the kingdom" in ways that continue to challenge the sharp divides between oppressor and oppressed. Instead of being complacent in the disinterested exchange between those who read us as marginalized others who can bear the weight of their queerness, we can challenge each other with a radical vulnerability. 

I had sat down and expected that this man would be yet another passer-by in my life and yet through his willingness to make his scars bare to me, I became implicated in his body. By sharing a history that was slowly (through the force of time and neurological change) becoming taken from him, I became implicated in his story. By receiving the desire and suffering of castration from him, I became implicated in his liberation.