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Saint Turing: A Few Reflections on Gay Iconography and Martyrdom on the Occasion of Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday

In film, Freud, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Mythology, Politics, Queer Theory, Sex on February 19, 2015 at 2:47 pm

by Chase Dimock

(This essay was originally published in 2012 on The Qouch in honor of Turing’s 100th birthday. With the resurgence of interest in Turing’s life following the Oscar buzz surrounding The Imitation Game, we wanted to reprint this piece to focus more attention on what Turing’s career, philosophy, and iconic status means for Queer Studies and LGBT politics)

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of British mathematician Alan Turing’s birth. In celebration of his enormous contributions to the fields of mathematics, computational science, cryptology, and artificial intelligence, the scientific community has dubbed 2012 the “Alan Turing Year”, commemorating the occasion with numerous conferences, museum exhibitions, a series of articles on his life in the Guardian and BBC, a Google doodle, and even a functional model of his famous Turing Machine made of Legos. By his mid 20s Turing developed his theory of the “Universal Machine”, thus ushering in the age of modern computer science. A decade later, Turing devoted his studies in cryptology toward cracking the German naval enigma. By developing machines known as “bombes” that could decrypt the messages the Nazis relayed to their U-boats, Turing’s intelligence gathering re-shaped World War II. Historians have argued that cracking the Nazi code shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

Such accolades coming 58 years after his death evidence not only his importance as a historical figure, but also how his ideas continue to influence contemporary research and debate on computer science in our increasingly digitized society. As the “Father of Artificial Intelligence”, Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” foresaw how rapid advances in information science would produce a future in which the line between human intelligence and artificial intelligence would become blurred. Asking, “can machines think”, Turing postulated that ultimately the true mark of artificial intelligence would be whether or not one could tell the difference between communication with a human versus a machine. Turing’s standards for evaluating artificial intelligence have not only framed the scholarly and ethical debate in the scientific community for the past six decades, but they have also proven to be a prophesy of daily life in the 21st century. Living amongst automated phone banks, internet chatterboxes, GPS navigators, and Apple’s Siri app, everyday life has become a series of Turing tests as we increasingly rely upon forms of artificial intelligence and speak to it as if it were real.

Yet, less emphasis has been placed on the tragedy of his untimely death. In 1952, Turing was arrested and convicted of gross indecency for a consensual sexual relationship with another man, the same 1885 statute under which Oscar Wilde was imprisoned more than half a century earlier. Instead of serving prison time, Turing chose to undergo an experimental hormonal treatment prescribed by the British government. While this chemical castration via a synthetic oestrogen hormone curbed his sex-drive, it had dire side effects. Turing began to grow breasts and developed a deep depression. His conviction also caused him to lose his security clearance, thus barring him from continuing to work with the British intelligence agencies. The man who did as much from inside a laboratory to defeat the Nazis as any general did on the battlefield was now considered a threat to national security solely by virtue of his sexuality. Two years later, on June 8th, 1954, Turing took a few bites from a cyanide-laced apple–an elaborate end designed to let his mother believe that his suicide was actually an accident due to careless storage of laboratory chemicals. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for Turing’s “appalling” treatment, but a 2011 petition to pardon Turing’s conviction was officially denied by the British Government.

While infinitely more qualified scientific minds have written amazing tributes to Turing’s contributions to computer science and mathematics this year, I am interested in what Turing’s life and legacy mean to gay history and queer thought. I first heard of Alan Turing when I was 14 years old and just starting to reconcile my sexuality with the images and stereotypes of gay men in the media. He was mentioned in Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Persons of the Century” and with just a brief blurb on his life and death my concept of what a gay man could achieve and contribute to the world was forever changed. I came of age in an era of unprecedented gay visibility, but the Elton John and “Will and Grace” imagery of an ostentatious, campy gay world did not seem to fit my shy, nerdy bookishness. Although I never excelled in math and science, Turing became one of my first gay heroes because he proved to me that a gay man—a nerdy man, can change the world through the power of his intellect, invent the future, defeat the Nazis, and stand up for his rights. Read the rest of this entry »

Contemporary Metrosexuality IV. Le Mort Chic: Epithalamion, Epitaph

In Art, film, Freud, Gender Studies, Lacan, LGBT, Literature, Masquerade, Performativity, Philosophy, Politics, Queer Theory, Sex, The End of Heterosexuality?, Transgender on January 1, 2015 at 11:31 am

The Final Article in our series: “The End of Heterosexuality?”                                         

Dixon Miller, New Orleans, 1996

Dixon Miller, New Orleans, 1996

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by Michael Angelo Tata

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If the edifying Versace Bildungsroman has taught us anything, it is that fashion evokes and invites death, that to be chic is to court death as the lusty courtesan flashes the inflamed King, that death is the ultimate reward for being fashionable, for being fashioned, for being able and willing to be made and remade time and time gain in the kinds of self-fashioning that epitomize the restless self of capital, eternal shopper looking to alienate his subjectivity in just the right foreign material, perhaps even arriving at the point when, as if emulating a pop princess whose psyche has circled back upon itself one too any times, he is finally able to claim he has renounced identity altogether in the pursuit of pure egolessness, the greatest illusion of territoriality.

Beverly Kills “Dee, when your gluten allergies act up, take out your nose ring!”  (Daily Mail)
Beverly Kills
“Dee, when your gluten allergies act up, take out your nose ring!”
(Daily Mail)

True, the death of Gianni Versace is a morality tale on almost every level, but the lesson to be learned from his demise is not a homophobic story about vulgarity and sexual favors in which demented gay men reap what they sow, as Maureen Orth presents in her facile exposé Vulgar Favors, but instead a larger and more genetic lesson about the implicit connection between fashion and death, the one tied inextricably to the other like a sparrow stapled to a shadow or a cinderblock roped to a cankle, the effect being that the more we embrace fashion, the louder we call out to death, who awaits the sound of our voices and finds us all the quicker simply by following the light reflecting from the embellishments of our surfaces (yes, this is also how the sun finds the moon). For it is only via the stuttering, chatterbox language of ephemerality that we may communicate with death and by embracing the transitory that we turn our bodies into so many transistor radios searching for just the right frequency to deliver a message that can never be recalled once its syllables achieve telepoetic status, radiating out into space along with every other radiowaved record of human civilization broadcast to the furthest reaches of the cosmos.

Maurice Blanchot has much to say about the chatterbox in the essays grouped joyously under the title Friendship: for him, the one who chatters paradoxically redeems the “idle talk” (Gerede) lamented by Heidegger in his Being and Time as discardable stage along the path to authentic Da-sein, at its best a productive social obstacle that must be superseded yet another trap put forward by the world to ensnare a being-there which is really a being-here-and-now (what I refer to as Spacetime Da_sein), preventing it from coming to a knowledge of itself through the simple, seductive ruse of distraction.

Little Miss Blanchot rawrzammm to infinity & beyond <3

Little Miss Blanchot
rawrzammm to infinity & beyond ❤

 Like Blanchot, I’ve always found a charm in idle talk, in particular as I discuss in my work on Existentialism at the Mall, myself unsure that discourses priding themselves on clarity, like logic or the philosophy of mathematics, ever go beyond the strange circularity of idle talk, this infinitely recursive yet clueless and a-discursive stammering that is first and foremost a playing for time, as in the title of Perf Art troublemakers Kiki and Herb’s smash 2000 show. In Blanchot’s words:

This is, as it were, the point of departure, an empty need to speak, made of this void and in order to fill it at all costs, and the void is himself having become this need and this desire that still treads only emptiness. A pure force of sorts, of melting snow, of drunken rupture, and often obtained under the cover of drunkenness, where the being who speaks find nothing to say but the flimsy affirmation of himself: A Me, Me, Me, mot vain, not glorious, but broken, unhappy, barely breathing, although appealing in the force of its weakness (“Battle with the Angel,” 131).

Read the rest of this entry »

Bend It Like Bex, Flex It Like Barts: Contemporary Metrosexuality and Its Pursuit of the Fabulous

In Art, film, Gender Studies, Lacan, LGBT, Masquerade, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory, The End of Heterosexuality? on May 28, 2014 at 8:59 am

The second in our on-going series on “The End of Heterosexuality?”
Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.35.47 PM

by Michael Angelo Tata 

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for 12 Pack

12 Pack Takes Over  (photo via vh1.com)

12 Pack Takes Over (photo via vh1.com)

Introduction: Narcissus Blinked (#sorrynotsorry)       

Selfie Wars take no prisoners: and so it is with vibrant male display in mind in the grand age of reality stardom that I offer the following series of reflections on what the metrosexual has done to interrupt a certain domination of the surface by homosexual culture in general, broken up into four installments, a tetraptych to be displayed at an impossible memorial ceremony where mourning and melancholia cross wires like so much spaghetti thrown against the wall just to see if it will stick, proof that the apartment was always a rental. In the first, printed here, immediately after this preface, and in direct physical contact with it, as if that matters (it might, actually), I trace out the rough contours of a fashion history that has left men in the dust in order clarify why exactly the metrosexual should arrive as such a surprise on the scene of display, where he seems to abjure both heterosexual and homosexual orthodoxies, making the future of each unclear, muddled and completely vulnerable to apocalypse. In the second, I gaze upon more recent history—and yet years that seem to have slipped so far and so quickly into oblivion, now that time has accelerated even beyond the spaciotemporal compression initially postulated by David Harvey in his analysis of postmodern culture and that Husserlian Internal Time Consciousness, a phenomenological mainstay, has become just another bone in the Pomo Reliquary—to examine what Gianni Versace has contributed to male efflorescence and in particular how he has clothed the whore so that his eventual disappearance will be more meaningful within the context of these struggles over aesthetic ownership (for in the end, not everyone owns male display—others are owned by it, or find themselves disowned completely, dissed and alone).

Next, in the third panel, if I may be permitted to stick with the poltytych metaphor from classical devotional painting, which seems entirely apt, I examine seminal aesthetician Edmund Burke’s ideas about the external features of the beautiful and the sublime so that the stakes of metrosexual reversal as the sublime becomes beautiful in a species of metaphysical makeover are spelled out clearly: the shift is not benign, and might even be described as tactical, assuming aesthetics is a war, which it might very well be, if entomology and ornithology have taught us anything and if the human experience is not such a radical break with nature as we might initially have fancied back at the start of Enlightenment thinking (it’s no accident that the typical Sadean justification of sexual violence is always that nature is cruel). Lastly, the final section of my lyric evocation introduces future mourning into the discussion, as it attunes itself to the affinity of fashion for the corpse and looks at the strange friendship the two entities share on both runway and street: for if every fashion stance is a commentary or gloss on death, then the metrosexual, too, must die, and be glossed, perhaps still remaining glossy, a creature most at home on the pages of a magazine or the charmed quadrilateral of the billboard, much like the Armani one famously perched along the elevated High Line Park in New York City, a metrosexual anchor. Assigning a value to that/these death(s) is imperative, for not every disappearance counts, much as we might wish it did: for to end and to stop denote different modes of cessation, as Arthur Danto has taught us in his writings about the famous End of Art: not every stop is an end, although every end stops (the trick is for the disaster to be world-historical). Read the rest of this entry »

The Logic of Sex: Heteronormativity, Gender, and the Law of the Excluded Middle

In Gender Studies, LGBT, Philosophy, Politics, The End of Heterosexuality? on March 3, 2014 at 2:18 pm

The first in our on-going series of articles on “The End of Heterosexuality?”

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by Joe Weinberg

It has long been thought that there are two and only two genders: male and female. While some (such as Butler in Gender Trouble) have argued that there is actually only one gender (Male being the norm, and female, as not-male, being the only gender) and used as a basis for justifying patriarchal mistreatment,[1]  it seems more accurate to say that there are more than ‘just’ two genders. That heteronormative binary is not only inaccurate, but actively hurtful to large groups of people, those who fall ‘between’ or ‘outside’ that binary.

Once we accept that there is more to the world of gender than male and female, certain questions arise. Do we look at gender as a spectrum? How many genders are there? And where does sex come into the picture? The simple answers are “No,” “I don’t know,” and “Everywhere.” For more nuanced and complex answers, we have to take a step back and define a few terms.

First, heteronormative binary. The heteronormative binary is a very fancy way of saying “two genders.” Basically, it’s referring to the idea that there are only two genders (male and female) and that being one means NOT being the other. Similarly, it refers to the idea that sexuality is pure, either homo or hetero. I don’t like binaries; there is more to being a woman than NOT being a man, and vice versa. I also think it is possible to have aspects of both without being ‘in transition’ from one to the other. And, it’s possible to be neither one, and be perfectly satisfied with that. Similarly, even if we throw in bisexuality to the homo/hetero split, I STILL think there’s more. That’s a matter of simple logic.

Speaking of logic, there are two other principles I need to get out of the way: The Law of the Excluded Middle (LotEM) and the Sorites paradox. The LotEM basically just says that there are other more than two options, and that sometimes the decision that seems to be between two things is actually between more than two things. For some nicely inflammatory examples, abortion isn’t a matter of Pro Choice or Pro Life; someone can be opposed to abortion in all cases EXCEPT incest or rape, or can be in favor of the right to choose while choosing for themselves not to have an abortion. There’s more than just black and white. The LotEM basically reminds us that there are shades of gray.

Sorites is a bit more complex. That’s the question of when something becomes a pile. Sorites himself used millet seeds, but I prefer the image going bald. If I lose one hair, I’m not bald. If I lose all my hair, I’m bald. But one hair isn’t going to make a difference one way or the other, right? But at the same time, if I take my hair away one at a time, sooner or later I cross into the bald category. That means that there is a point where one hair DOES make a difference. So a single hair both does and doesn’t matter. That’s why it’s a paradox.

Okay. Back to the spectrum of gender. If we see gender as a spectrum with male on one side and female on the other, we run into a Sorites paradox. Look:

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.16.34 AM

Somewhere along that line, a person goes from being female to being male. At some point, a single quality changes the gender. While there is a fluid space in between, a space where someone could be ‘partly male’ or ‘mostly female,’ even then their gender identity is directly linked to that same binary. Riki Wilchins writes that “when you look closer, every spectrum turns out to be anchored by the same familiar two poles – male/female, man/woman, gay/straight. The rest of us are just strung out between them, like damp clothes drying on the line. The spectrum of gender turns out to be a spectrum of heterosexual norms, only slightly less oppressive but not less binary than its predecessors” (30-31). A spectrum really just is a binary. It’s just a binary that looks at the places between. But not as places in themselves so much as portions of one or the other side of the binary. So we have that paradox. Read the rest of this entry »

Growing up on the Island of Misfit Toys or: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a Queer Allegory

In Art, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Mythology, Performativity, Politics on December 13, 2013 at 10:27 am

The sixth in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 5.29.52 PM

by Chase Dimock

The Misfit Narrative and Queer Youth

The narrative of the misfit character struggling to find his place in the world is a well-used trope for popular entertainment because it is nearly universally identifiable and it lends itself to a light, yet redeeming moral at the end of the story. Everyone, in some capacity, thinks of himself or herself as a misfit to some degree and everyone is accustomed to, yet never contesting of, the simplistic message of tolerance and treating everyone equally.

Yet, the story of Rudolph as a misfit takes on a different dimension for the 50 years worth of queer American children who grew up watching the holiday classic every year on television. While these stories about kindly treating those different from us and not being afraid to be different were commonplace in the American classroom with their examples of not being ashamed to wear glasses, have freckles, stuttering, etc., the narrative of tolerating difference resonates differently for queer youth. Unlike the child with glasses who knows he is the same as other children beneath the glasses, queer youth often feel an intrinsic difference—that they inhabit a different kind of body or gender—almost another species of being. The queer youth is looking for more than a little hope that they will be tolerated and accepted; they are also looking for a subject model to emulate, a guide on how to live as a misfit.

For most of the past 50 years, lgbt youth have had to look for subject models in the abstract. Until the past decade, there were few, if any, lgbt identified characters in the media that their family consumed. Unlike today where lgbt youth have a character on Glee or Modern Family to point to in order to navigate their subject position, children of previous generations (including myself) had to look elsewhere for characters and subject models who mirrored their queerness in non-explicitly gendered or sexual forms. Coming into one’s gay identity meant identifying across a variety of different kinds of queerness and cobbling together a sense of how to think and live in a marginalized subject position by observing and learning from other forms of outsider status, like racial minorities, the disabled, immigrants, the poor—pretty much any oppressed class of people who would have some representation in the media.

In a certain way, maturing into my gay subjectivity by identifying through the similar outsider subject positions of others was beneficial because I saw my gayness as united with other disadvantaged segments of the population. It allowed me to see that some of the challenges facing the lgbt world come not simply from sexual or gender difference, but also from how society defines and polices otherness. Read the rest of this entry »

One from the Other

In Art, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory on August 25, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Picture 3(A still from David Wojnarowicz’s film, A Fire in My Belly)

by Kevin McLellan

Preface

Before the acronyms HIV and AIDS were established, there were these acronyms: the 4H disease (Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroine users) and GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). Did this precursory nomenclature further contribute to the stigma for the gay community in the early 1980s? For those within the gay community not only diagnosed with what would be named HIV/AIDS? Were there other forces that divided the negative gay community, if you will, from the positive gay community? Was fear one of those forces?One from the other by no means directly addresses these substantial questions, but rather in its compression attempts to touch upon the underbelly of a post-breakup phone conversation between HIV+ Kris and HIV- Anthony in 1998, on the heels of breakthrough medicinal therapy. Yet the psychological and sociosexual impacts for those living with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis prior to 1996 had already been set into motion.

The title of this play, One from the other, correlates to something Kris says to Anthony, “It’s killing you. The alcohol and your relationship with your mother. I can’t determine one from the other.” The intention of this dialogue, and consequently the title, is by no means to demonize mothers/motherhood, but rather to use (this particular) mother as metaphor for HIV/AIDS and how the virus has control over the body like the mother has control over her son.

Kris mimics Anthony’s mother, “Why do you speak to me that way? You know that I’m not going to live for very much longer.” This language in conjunction with Kris’ claim, “You speak with her nearly every day and fall for her guilt” is not only an attempt to set the stage for Anthony and his compromised relationships (with his mother, an ex,  and alcohol), but alternatively to fashion germane language for those living with HIV/AIDS in 1998 if they were to address the virus itself.

So, ultimately, this play is attempting to support the creation of a metaphorical conceit (a mother lode, if you will) in order to address directly or indirectly various kinds of division: within the gay and straight communities, between a positive and a negative gay man, and between sons and mothers.

One from the Other

Picture 5A still from David Wojnarowicz’s film, A Fire in My Belly

 

Cast of Characters:

KRIS, a thirty-something gay man who is HIV+ and recently separated from Anthony.

ANTHONY, an alcoholic forty-something gay man still in love with Kris.

The play takes place in their respective apartments, opens with a phone conversation in progress, one evening in the year 1998. Read the rest of this entry »

Constitutionality of Recent SCOTUS Decisions — DOMA and Voting Rights

In Instinct for Research, LGBT, Politics, Uncategorized on July 25, 2013 at 12:00 am

Neon Supreme Court

by Matthew Nelson

(This article originally appeared on As It Ought To Be)

The Supreme Court has been getting a lot of attention lately. With the deluge of end-of-term decisions over, it seems everyone is taking turns surveying the damage. But while most commentators ask “helping-or-hurting” questions – How big of a setback was the Prop 8 ruling for marriage traditionalists? Did racism win the day at the University of Texas? – I want to draw attention to a different set of questions raised by two of the year’s biggest decisions. These decisions, on gay marriage and voting rights respectively, offer an excellent opportunity to revisit our government’s famed system of “checks and balances” and ask just what we expect the various branches to do to get along.

In United States v. Windsor, the Court struck down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prevented even already-married same-sex couples from receiving the benefits of a federally acknowledged marriage. It did so because it found that the law violated the so-called “due process clause” of the Fifth Amendment.  So far, so good – this much accords well with our ordinary conception of how the federal government works – the legislature enacts laws, and the judiciary reviews their constitutionality. But in order to get to a place where they could even rule on DOMA’s constitutionality, the Court first had to answer a strange procedural question – was there even a real case to decide?

The problem was that the two sides seemed to agree on the correct ruling. Both the plaintiff, Edith Windsor, and the defendant, the U.S. Government (as represented by its Executive Branch), agreed that the law was unconstitutional. Accordingly, Ms. Windsor ought to be entitled to a refund of more than $350,000 in taxes that she was forced to pay on the estate of her deceased spouse, Thea Spyer, because under DOMA her same-sex marriage did not qualify her for surviving-spouse tax exemption. This led Justice Scalia, in oral arguments, to ask why the case had made it to the Supreme Court at all. What made it different from a debt-related lawsuit where the debtor agrees he owes money but just refuses to pay? In that case, there is no case – the debtor owes the money, no questions asked.

But the Executive Branch disagreed…kind of. Although they refused to defend DOMA’s constitutionality, they insisted on enforcing it and requested that the Court continue with the case as if everything were normal. However, because the Executive refused to defend the law, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group from the House of Representatives had to step in instead. Their representative, Paul Clement, pointed out that this convoluted scheme had already led at the District Court level to “the most anomalous motion to dismiss in the history of litigation: A motion to dismiss, filed by the United States, asking the district court not to dismiss the case.” Justice Kennedy noted that that is enough to “give you intellectual whiplash.” Indeed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on the Assassination of Judy Garland (Series of Paintings 2008-2012)

In Art, Gender Studies, LGBT, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory on April 16, 2013 at 9:03 pm

The second in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”

duke_Killshot 2 Judys Gopalkrishnan 2013-1

by Carl Gopalkrishnan

Between 2008-2012, I created paintings with an ‘old school’ queer cultural affinity with vintage Broadway and Hollywood musicals. I used the life of Judy Garland as an internal narrative arc, a reflective tool, as part of my personal response to the 9/11 consciousness we inhabit today.  It became a metaphorical exploration of American politics from the period of the Obama/Clinton primaries, through further conflict in the Middle East amid the background of drones and the war on terror.  I think Judy kept asking the same question too, but kept singing the whole time, so keeping her fucked up life beside me as I painted was oddly grounding.

To me, Garland is more than a gay icon. She represents the best and worst of America – and their inevitable interoperability. The flipside of her talent helped me to understand the American partisan split personality in a more sympathetic way. I also had no difficulty with being sympathetic because I can’t not be sympathetic to one side of Judy without acknowledging the damage on the other side. And this ‘otherness’ in my paintings is how I conceive what is queer in this series of paintings.  This led me to looking at Hollywood movies and musicals as metaphors for the political intransigence of both Bush and Obama’s foreign policies. I call the series The Assassination of Judy Garland, because I feel that we are now separated into those that see Judy in 2 dimensional tragic terms; and those that see how tragedy shaped her genius in glorious 3D.

I also used French medieval epic poetry – chansons de geste – roughly translated as songs of heroic deeds because they were used at that time to support the political narratives of the Crusades in ways that reminded me of how many Hollywood products supports the War on Terror.  So the queer lens I created for these paintings is a prescription lens made for a specific time and place. And this lens acts as a screen to both hide and reveal motivations and desires, as much the screen icons I reference.  So the modern political stage I see is through recent history (Judy Garland’s life) and medieval history (chansons de geste).

As a queer-identifying man of colour with multiple geopolitical and sexual identities, I found myself directly affected by the political climate of the last decade.  It was the first time as a painter that I was looking outside to constructively use what was inside me to create an alternative to the narrative War on Terror, which always insists that I use my cultural heritage to position my loyalties in a dangerous time.  When I looked around to find how I could use my queer identity, I found that it was so busy trying on clothes that it had gone way beyond the body it was made to clothe. It had changed as I had aged.

People seem to forget that queer theory breathes within a time of terror that smashes lenses and burns books. It fancies itself immune. But I could not find a queer framework that helped me to paint what I saw.  I no longer understood what I call the new normative queer, and so I returned to what I knew was ‘naff’ and old school.  I allowed myself to visually languor in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1950s. I felt quite alienated from the new normative queer climate influenced by a hyper-masculinized LGBTI culture that was becoming increasingly nationalistic in it’s desire to go beyond its backroom history into the light of mainstream acceptance.  Part of that process seems to relegate our screen culture history into the domain of soft power forever, which I really resist.  Screen culture has a power equal to that of the chansons de geste, which could inspire entire populations to lay down their lives through songs orally memorised and sung from village to village in the time of The Crusades. So I painted within that retrospective space, choosing sense over sensibility, perhaps.

I have taken away from these paintings a deeper appreciation for how our queer histories have become silent pictures that sit patiently and move slowly behind the interactive and hyperactive edges of this new normative queer. So while I reference moving pictures, the surreality in my paintings is happening on the silent screen inside us. Applied to the bigger stage, this screen can affect momentous change. We should respect that power. Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing History From the Margins

In Feminism, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Politics on February 27, 2013 at 12:04 am
The first in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”
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peck mirage

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by Bonnie Morris

“What’s wrong with you, Mr. Stillwell? Don’t you want to remember? No; you don’t. That’s why you’ve blacked it out. You’ve stubbed your conscious mind, and you’ve put a bandage of forgetfulness on it until it recovers. Have the courage to face that terrible thing that made you forget.”

Mirage, Universal Pictures, 1965

Screen techniques, the subconscious mind, and the political messages imbedded in Hollywood film are all important tools for me as a professor of history. What the camera’s eye “uncovers” is a means for discussing how we hide historical truths, only to reveal them later in the screenplay of American culture.

At George Washington University, it’s my job to acquaint first-year college students with everything their high schools couldn’t or wouldn’t teach: scholarship on gender and sexuality. The history of slavery and segregation. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The exclusion of women from schools and jobs and athletic fields. The utter suppression of lesbian and gay lives. Usually, such unflattering pictures of discrimination in not-too-distant America were skipped over in my students’ K-12 curriculum. Too often, the history of the Other is buried–marginalized. So, how do we begin to uncover it and restore it to collective consciousness? On the very first day of class, we start talking about seeing history from the margins; from the authentic perspective of the marginalized.

It’s exciting work. Unfortunately, the rich disciplines of women’s studies/black studies/gay and lesbian studies are still reserved for college courses and advanced degrees, and kept separate from “regular” American history. The subject of American women, who today make up over 51% of the population and almost 60% of college enrollment, is still a “special topic.” That’s as problematic a marker in the academic world as “special interests” are in government. It means my classes only reach self-selecting students; no one has to take women’s history. It also means that even these committed, interested students, who may have attended progressive private high schools, are stunningly unfamiliar with the ugly side of American history. My challenge, each fall, is simply convincing these sheltered and privileged students that racial segregation and No Women Allowed actually happened, and happened right here in the nation’s capital.

“No way—that’s crazy! That couldn’t possibly be true!” is a familiar outburst in my Western Civ class.  Some want to know: am I exaggerating? Inventing? Indoctrinating? No. But encountering the unfamiliar in a humanities class lesson bewilders some students, who, moreover, are anxious to do well and to earn an A.  Teaching “from margin to center”, to use the great book title by critic bell hooks, means teaching students to see what was never made visible in their schooling before now.

What does it mean to focus our “eyes” on the previously unseen and unspoken history too often consigned to the footnotes of a page? When I ask my American students what they know about World War II, for instance, most reach for an emblematic American memory, one that sticks out from a lifetime of rote memorization. Pearl Harbor. Iwo Jima. D-Day. We won. Part of what I’m asking is for them to shift the way history is retold, in the same way they might reassess their own “life moments” as individuals. When we sift through our personal memories, we may find they are stacked top-heavy with proud achievements and celebrations, the first kiss, the winning game, graduation.  These happiest images are the ones kept in the slide-show carousel (or, updating technology a little, the personal power-point overview.) But when are we old enough to find the extra slides, the buried images that tell other stories?  This is where the film screen helps my students with recovering, and thus completing, our marginalized national memories, both good and bad.

I tell my students that what helped me was a movie called Mirage.  Directed by Edward Dmytryk and released by Universal Pictures in 1965, it tells the story of a man [Gregory Peck] suffering from amnesia. As he wanders through New York he becomes aware that men are out to kill him. He’s being followed, shot at, and threatened by a mysterious bad guy called “the Major,” while desperately trying to understand the meaning of it all: the past two years and his own career identity are a blur. A nervous psychologist, a brooding detective, and a cynical ex-girlfriend each give Peck small clues to his circumstances. Then, at last, one shard of memory floats up to the surface: Peck begins to see an image of himself in a Southwestern setting, clearly not Manhattan, meeting with the leader of a prominent peace foundation–a man who recently suffered a fatal fall from a top-story window. What does this memory reveal—or conceal? Did Peck play a role in this other man’s death? Read the rest of this entry »

Why Don’t You Come Up Sometime and Queer Me?: Reclaiming Mae West as Author and Sexual Philosopher

In Feminism, Foucault, Freud, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Masquerade, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory, Transvestite Souls, Uncategorized on November 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm

  by Chase Dimock

  

We know Mae West as an actress, a sex symbol, a cultural icon, a comedienne, a master of the one liner and the double entendre. What we don’t think of Mae West as is an author. It has been largely forgotten that Mae West got her start on stage, in a series of salacious plays she wrote for herself in the late 20s. West was by then a veteran of the Vaudeville circuit appearing mostly chorus line gigs and bit parts. But when she grew tired of waiting for the right part and her big break to come around, she decided to write her own roles. With early plays such as “Sex” and “Diamond Lil”, West invented the vamp persona that defined her career over the next five decades. If we think of Mae West as playwright and an author that wrote the character that she ultimately became, then we can view her iconography as its own meticulously plotted text and her careful crafting of figure and image as a finely formulated semiotics of the body. If we think of Mae West as an author, then her pithy one-liners and double entendres transcend the ephemera of comic relief and reveal her as one of the most astute observers of sexual and gender politics of the modernist era. If we think of Mae West as an author, a quote like “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing”, becomes an insight into gender performativity. Her quote “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution”, becomes a critique of the state’s power to enforce heteronormativity through marriage. And finally her quote “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for the double meaning” becomes a post-modernist play on the endless veils of irony and metaphor that obscure and inflate every day speech. It is this Mae West as author and sexual philosopher who put her text into her curves, that I want to recover and illuminate.

While West marketed herself as an object of heterosexual desire, she not only understood her appeal to a gay audience, but she also engaged with the newly emerging gay community in her plays. Thus, I want to also think about Mae West as queer theorist—as an interpreter of queer sexuality who saw the newly visible figure of the homosexual in society as a product of power relations—a figure determined by the interplay of institutional powers, medicine and the law, and his own creative power to define himself. For this, I turn to her 1927 play, “The Drag”, a text centered on the question of the male homosexual’s position in society. Unlike her previous play, “Sex”, which launched her into notoriety and stardom on Broadway, “The Drag” was not a vehicle for self-promotion as an actress. Mae West did not write a role for herself. Instead, “The Drag” sought to cash in on what contemporary scholars have called “The Pansy Craze”, a period in the 1920s when female impersonators appeared in mainstream stage shows and the Jazz age youth went slumming at gay bars and drag balls. The “pansy”, often known as the “fairy”, was a figure that created gender confusion; a male that interwove signifiers of masculinity and femininity on his body. He paraded feminine mannerisms, walked in high heels with a swish, and even used feminine pronouns, but he was not a trans-woman. The fairy became the dominant image of what was termed the “invert”, before “gay” hit wide usage two decades later; a biological male with the soul of a woman on the inside.

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