Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Yesterday, I wrote about this photograph and the incident which produced it. The first time I wrote about this incident, ten years ago, I was relying on microfilm and the photos were too dark to see anything. Since then, this newspaper has been digitized, so we can all see the look of utter agony and dismay on the face of the wife of the President of the university after students supporting a service worker strike stole/expropriated a bunch of food from a scab-operated dining hall and then dumped it on the front lawn of the president's mansion. There’s something deeply sexist about the way Mrs. Brewster is represented in the photograph, as an object of simultaneous scorn and pity, as a symbol of the putative wrongness (or radicalism) of the students’ act, in the way she is only knowable here through her husband’s name, and in the invisibility of the male administrators who were also trying to pick up the garbage. But the photograph, and Mrs. Brewster’s dismay, also mark the dislocation, the profound disruption of the social order, which accompanies the moment when one has to do that work which others usually perform because those others refuse to do it any longer. In this sense, the photo of Mrs. Brewster thus suggests the reversals and utopic imaginaries which the strike had already enacted and made possible, even as it subjected the workers who waged it to insecurity and want.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Yale Break was a feminist newspaper written mostly by clerical and technical workers during the YNFAC organizing campaign.  (1969-1972).  From the chapter I'm writing:

The logo atop the first page of each issue is a clerical worker in a matching prison-striped Yale cap and miniskirt. A comically large IBM typewriter is shackled to her leg just above her high-heeled left foot. In one hand, she carries a stack of books, and in the other, a tray of hot coffee mugs. On her face, she wears glasses, and, like the flight attendants Arlie Russell Hochschild describes in her classic ethnography of emotional labor, The Managed Heart, a wide, cartoonish, haunting smile, part of the job as much as the typewriter or coffee

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spoiler

For a moment there it seemed like white suburban high school kid noir was the next big thing.  First Veronica Mars, (which I wrote about a couple of times during the early years of this blog) then Brick, both obsessed, in their own way, with, in deeply fetishistic and constrained ways, the intersections of class and race and schooling and drugs and death.  Veronica Mars, hailed almost immediately as the heir apparent to the pulp feminism of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which went off the air a little over a year before Veronica Mars began to air on the same network, was also deeply interested in gender, in girlhood, but only the kind of gender that white folks get to have, only white girlhood, and always in ways which fetishized all the fucked up tropes of virginity, --and here I should probably drop a trigger warning -- of rape, of abuse in ways which commodified rather than disrupted, which substituted lurid affectations of pulp sensation for any kind of feminist politics which might actually interrogate the meaning and politics thereof.

The nadir of Veronica Mars as a series is the Hearst College rape plot, which begins with a one-off episode in Season 2, featuring a stunt-cast Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat, the Arrested Development kids all grown up and in college.  The ongoing mystery of the serial rapes is apparently unworthy of any discussion for the rest of that season, and then returns in Season 3 long enough to explain that black feminist militants fake rapes for reasons I don't really remember and I am never going to rewatch that shit, so sorry.  It's pulp, but it's revanchist pulp, a racist, sexist reaction to a caricatured women of color feminism masquerading as neoliberal "postracialism."  A ten-cent Alan Bloom watches PCU critique of academic multiculturalism and/as radical feminism.  By itself, the Hearst rape arc is a good reason to view the wave of nostalgia which surrounds the series in a very critical light.  But other than Sady Doyle's excellent essay, which appeared as I was editing this post, few have done so.  That is, in any case, the spirit in which I write this post, unrelenting, ruthless critique of teenage high school dramas.  Veronica Mars is singularly worthy of such attention, I think, because it is remembered as particularly feminist in ways which it was not always, perhaps not ever.

When Veronica Mars went off the air in 2007, I'd seen every episode multiple times, but I wasn't sad to see it go, because everything after Sheriff Kieth Mars literally pulls his daughter out of a refrigerator at the conclusion of the very entertaining first season is pretty awful.  As I wrote on this very blog almost seven years ago,
Rob Thomas was all too happy to let noir be a synonym for the male gaze, and the show's treatment of rape and sexual violence got progressively worse with each passing season. Supporting characters vanished into the ether, and plotlines became increasingly vapid, predictable, or pulled out of the writers' asses for lack of more compelling stories to tell. The "LoVe" story between Veronica and her borderline psychotic spoiled brat of a sometimes lover Logan Echols went from complicated, precarious, and smartly written, to lazy, faux-epic, and trite.
I still agree with all of that, to some extent.  I don't feel much compulsion to go back and rewatch the series, so I will admit to some fuzziness, especially when it comes to season 3, which I have mostly blocked from memory.  But I just watched the movie, and I thought I would write about it a bit.  I don't believe in spoiler warnings, but I do believe in praeteritio.

Funded in no small part by a wildly successful and equally controversial kickstarter, the 2014 film Veronica Mars functions on every single level as a form of wish fulfillment, at once resolution and reboot.  It has to tell us what everyone has been up to for the last ten years.  (really seven, but everyone looks fashionably younger than they are supposed to be in the film this way.  Actually, no one looks much older at all, except for Wallace, and Tina Majorino, whose character's name I do not remember which may be because I am still angry about the final episode of season 2)  But it also has to restore a familiar status quo so the people who payed to make this movie, the self-described fans of the show, feel like they have gotten their money's worth.  If Veronica stayed in New York and worked at a corporate law firm for the entire film, people would feel cheated.  That's a novel constraint in some ways, but not in others; indeed it seems a common trope of reunion specials and analogous genres, which have to have getting the band back together as a kind of pleasurable tension, have to take us to a point where we see the world as we knew it through the original product.  Veronica Mars accomplishes this through two ways, both of which are fairly trite - a ten year high school reunion, and a murder in which Logan, V's ultra-rich psychopath ex boyfriend, is the main suspect.

Veronica returns to Neptune, which is now under the thumb of another hammy Sheriff Lamb, except this time it's Jerry O'Connell in full douchebag mode, which he is singularly good at.  Veronica returns to a Neptune where her father still works as a private eye, where Wallace is a high school sports coach and Tina Majorino's character works for Kane Software, (and neither one of them has more than five lines in the entire film, not because, as Sady Doyle suggests, they are eclipsed by the writers' obsession with the Logan romance plot, though they kind of are, but because the writers are bad.  The writers have no idea how to make either Wallace or Mac, (hey, I remembered her name) especially post-assault, post Beaver Mac, the center of a narrative that has become unmoored from a character who has herself become unmoored from what made the show initially interesting and exciting, that is, the girl with the huge lens inverting the gaze, deploying the genre tropes of a deeply masculinist genre to interrogate the racialized class politics of the fundamentally corrupt nature of SoCal capitalism.  It's only in part the soapy romance that derails that project.  Indeed the romance itself is evocative of the larger problem - that the series' writers are not feminists.  They do not have a class analysis of Southern Californian suburbia.  They have a strawman thereof.  Their racial politics, and here I have to respectfully differ with Alyssa, are also pretty flimsy.  That's why weevil is so marginalized here and in the series itself.  He's a prop the writers long ago lost any idea of what to do with.  Making Celeste Kane George Zimmerman is less social critique than narrative exhaustion.  This is one more verse in a song Veronica Mars has been pretending to sing since the beginning, but it's an empty, repetitive melody, with nothing to say, cashing in on the forms of exploitation and genocide that structure the world we inhabit rather than telling us something valuable about them.

Veronica returns to Neptune to solve the murder of Carrie Bishop.  Carrie Bishop is the character from season one who accuses Adam Scott's charismatic teacher of statutory rape.  Veronica eventually figures out that Carrie is really acting on behalf of her friend Susan Knight.  In the series, Carrie Bishop was portrayed by the actress Leighton Meester, more recently of Gossip Girl.  Here, not only has the character been recast, she has changed her name.  This is an odd choice.  It renders the series as proximate to the film but also an imperfect approximation thereof, the fiction complicated by the very political economy of film production that the film presents itself as a victory over, though it is more an experiment in the outsourcing of risk (an ethos and process at the core of contemporary neoliberalism) than anything else.  (Here I have to disagree with radical philosopher Brian Holmes contention, shared by the media theorist Tiziana Terranova via twitter two days ago, that crowdfunding is "the anarchist welfare state."  Maybe it is, sometimes, like when people crowdfund their gender transition surgeries or anarchist book projects or insurrectionary social centers.  But there's nothing anarchist about corporate film production companies moving risk from their own bank accounts and that of the studios with which they transact to the paypal accounts of consumers who may or may not acquire some sort of participatory claim on or stake in the finished product.) 

I need to talk about Logan Echols now.  Logan began his fictional life as a spoiled, sadistic, racist, little shit, the series' main antagonist and maybe the most obvious suspect in the Lily Kane murder.  Three quarters of the way through the first season, Logan inexplicably becomes Veronica's main love interest.  He is back to being a racist, classist, violent asshole by the beginning of the second season.  He's a fairly loathsome character whom the writers seem to have decided, influenced by a vocal subsection of the franchise's fan base, is an epic romantic hero, and so he takes on the persona of star-crossed dickhead for most of the last two seasons of the show.  At least as far as I remember.  Like I said, it's been a while.

In the film, Logan has "gotten himself together" by joining the Air Force.  He greets Veronica in his dress uniform, she makes Richard Gere jokes that would have been uncomfortably dated a decade ago, and we're all supposed to be impressed with how much he's grown.  Logan Echols, a racist bully well schooled and practiced in deeply bourgeois forms of reactionary violence, finds redemption in the air force.  He bombs Afghan "enemy combatants" now instead of community swimming pools, (S2E1)  hence, maturity!  Progress!  Adulthood!  All of which are signified and achieved through a glorification of militarism; the fetish of the uniform that conceals the bloody empire which it is inextricable from.    Late in the film, Veronica (spoilers) postcoitally quotes Aaron Sorkin's lugubrious and campily melodramatic courtroom dialogue from A Few Good Men to Logan.  In the bit, Veronica appropriates and sanitizes ("effity" not "faggoty") a Jack Nicholson line.  But Logan has in at least one sense actually become Colonel Jessup.  As is clear during an appropriately absurd scene at the 10 year reunion in which Madison Sinclair plays Veronica's sex tape and Logan beats the shit out of half of his male high school classmates, he, like Nicholson's Jessup, remains impressed by, if not obsessed with, the power of violence to protect, to uphold.  But maybe that's a stretch.  My point is really that the militarist imaginary of sexuality in the show - and I don't think this is camp detournment or anything quite so seductive, is both deeply troubling and completely unsurprising.  In the same way the series has also been deeply in love with (and exploitative of) "the good cop" (Principally Deputy Leo, who has a cameo in the film, but also Deputy Sacks, who meets an untimely end when a gaping plot hole smashes into his truck) its dad-worship authoritarianism (when can we finally admit that Kieth Mars is a dick?) is now transferred to Logan-as-Gere, the officer and the gentleman, the spoiled racist poor little rich boy as the national hero.  Maybe Logan isn't Colonel Jessup so much as George W. Bush?

I am not so much on Team Pizz (sp?) though Veronica is rather awful to him here, as I am the abolition of the compulsory heteronormativity that made the series increasingly unwatchable after the premiere of season 2. Veronica Mars to me represents one inarguably great season of campy neonoir television and then about ten years of lost potential, bad writing, exploitative violence, unaddressed trauma, unmourned death (here the scene in which absent classmates named are read at the 10 year reunion is really a lost opportunity - we hear Meg Manning's name mentioned, for instance, and no one notices.  The absence of Lily, not to mention her still presumably very much alive brother and his daughter, is also noteworthy.)  Kind of like this movie, which isn't terrible, but acts as a pretty clear reminder, and helpfully restages and reproduces, pretty much everything that went wrong with the original series.

I should end there, though I think there's also something to say about how the series and movie are so profoundly skeptical of the nerd, the "nice guy."  That the "nice guy" is a particularly venal form of malevolent masculinist revanchism (think "friendzone") is undebatable.  In retrospect this skepticism of ascendant nerdcult is something that the series sort of did right even as it embraced said nerdcult.  Except that the particular way the show decides to go after the "Nice Guy" winds up pathologizing survivors of sexual violence in a really crass and disgusting way (I am talking about Beaver Casablancas but I could be talking about a lot of characters.)  The show's ultimate villain is another "nice guy", and it seems as if Thomas et al want to come back to this critique.  But the writing is clumsy.  There is no emotional resonance, at least for me.  (And I should acknowledge the privileged position from which I write about these issues.)  Martin Starr is an underrated actor who is woefully underused here and has been underused in pretty much everything with the exception of Freaks and Geeks, in which he was phenomenal.  His presence here, and the exchange between him an fellow Freaks and Geeks alumnus Dave Gruber Allen, feels like another crass VM cameo, like Alyson Hannigan as Logan's sister or Charisma Carpenter as Dick and Beaver's (come on) stepmother or Joss Whedon as the gas station attendant or whatever.  It's an excuse bathe Veronica Mars in the glow of other proximate texts, to claim affinity by association even at the film's supposed dramatic climax.  One of the final scenes of the film, right before Veronica confronts and defeats (no savior here, which was one of the things about the film I did appreciate) a guy who murders women and forces them to have sex with him, is a Freaks and Geeks joke.  This is a problem.  Because while parody and humor can certainly be powerful weapons against sexual violence and abuse, Veronica Mars has never been very good at that sort of thing.





(edited to fix up and expand the last paragraph.)

A Birder's Guide to the Commodification of Teens(TM)

I made Johana watch "A birder's guide ot everything," which is a new coming of age drama about some high school birdwatchers that is now available on iTunes and Time Warner On Demand and is premiering in theaters next week.  I didn't like it.  It's not so much the bird-related aspects of the film which I object to, although they are pretty ridiculous - elite birdwatchers crashing down a trail on mopeds, a labrador duck sighting, a presumed white-winged scoter on a suburban street dismissed as commonplace, Ben Kingsley magically knowing what park a migrating bird will next stop at after it's been flushed, ducks migrating during t-shirt weather in the northeast...

No, it was more the rote "serious" teen film cliches, plucked from John Hughes' fictional Schermer, Illinois and given a fresh application of post-American Pie heteronormative raunch.  The nerdy oversexed best friend character could be the Max Casella character from Doogie Howser, MD, except he says "vagina" every other word, because Teens(TM) are the universal consumer, the docile body of the film industry's inexorable need to recycle the same tired representational forms ad infinitum.  Hence the reviews that call this film an heir to Stand By Me (only because it isn't self-consciously pastiche enough to fit in the same genre as Super 8, though it feels at times like a cynical retread of many of the character formulas in that film - the troubled protagonist with the dead mother, the love interest thrust I to the aggressively homosocial boys' club as a matter of happenstance/narrative convenience.  And of course there's the desexualized asthmatic Asian male sidekick, because what would a teen movie be without a little mild racism-cum-ableism?

What's interesting about the film, then, is not the film itself, which is pretty awful, but rather its marketing -- it's being promoted by the heavyweights of what I am coming to think of as bird-capital's NGO wing -- the National Audubon Society and many of its local affiliates and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, both of which likely see the film as a means by which to promote and popularize birdwatching, especially among Teens(TM).  The inter penetration of the for-profit and the non-profit are fairly constant within the world of North American birdwatching - viz partnerships between, say, the Cornell Lab's ebird project and Carl Zeiss optics, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.  But there's something about the boosterism that sticks out, and if I do wind up writing more seriously about birds, birdwatching, and capital, it's something I want to keep thinking about - the ways that capital is invoked as salvific, the capitalist realism of not just ecotourism discourse but conservation evangelism as well.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Some questions about the state of manarchy and the gender of marxist critique

It's interesting how the meaning of "manarchist" has shifted, maybe narrowed, over the last few years.  When I first heard folks using the term about five years ago, it seemed to me that it was a way of marking the ways that even the most theoretically avant-garde variants of anarchist practice and scholarship were marked by their gendered assumptions, hypermasculinist norms, and most troublingly what a lot of people denounced as a profoundly apologetic attitude towards various forms of sexual violence.  In the intervening half-decade it's been popularized (thanks, Ryan Gosling,) but also, maybe, contained, so that to call someone a manarchist is no longer to put masculinity itself on the carpet, but instead to invoke a much more particular sort of naive antifeminism and hypermasculinism which maybe owes a lot more to the experience of the Occupy movement than to the occupations that preceded it.  Does that make any sense?  Is it a useful claim to make?  I'm guess I'm curious about the state of "manarchy" at present, particularly given the latest round of critiques of "call-out culture" and the latest attacks on people for outing anarchists with histories of sexual assault for dishonesty about transformative justice procedures etc.

I guess I'm thinking about this also in relation to the weird backlash against trigger warnings.  I think the politics of safety are pretty fraught, and folks need to read Christina Hanhardt's fantastic book about the politics of Safe Space and the race and class politics of gay neighborhoods and policing, which has a great deal to say on the subject.  But there's also a disturbingly gleeful antifeminism in some of the not-even-critiques that have circulated on social media in the wake of that New Republic piece.  In the fifteen-odd years that I have been involved in radical organizing and other projects, I don't know that I've ever seen such malice directed towards what are, in essence, survivor strategies.  I think TWs are open to critique.  I have lots of critiques.  (In short I think there are ways that TWs assume a universal equivalence of trauma in which the racialized particularities of particular forms of violence are flattened and/or disappeared.  No one is safe, but some are always already safer than others.)  But while assy critique can be liberating and fun to read as well as fun to perform, it can also easily slip into some rather reactionary forms of address.

The two paragraphs above seem a bit more disconnected now than they did when they were congealing in my brain, so I think I'll stop there and move on to something else.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Education in the streets, 11 years on

Today is the 11th anniversary of Education in the Streets.  I've written about it so many times already that I'm not entirely sure what it's useful for me to say here other than that it was a moment that was politically formative and euphoric enough that I am still thinking about it and writing about it today, still deeply invested in the project of stealing the university from the university through the refusal of work, of creating spaces of insurgent knowledge production within oppositional practice of insurgent and transformative labor organizing which moves beyond the workplace to challenge the colonial logics of university service labor urbanization.
The potential for that kind of transversal organizing practice, for the kinds of radical affinities modeled in the organizing that produced that day (March 6, 2003) to emerge elsewhere is maybe the most exciting outcome of the GSOC election victory, besides, you know, remembering John Sexton's promise to the faculty that the union could either die a quick death or a slow death and taking a long, slow drink of wild cherry diet pepsi.   I'll be doing both today, but mostly I'll be thinking about how what it means to teach and what it means to learn are transformed by struggle, how the strike troubles the limits of the enclosure of knowledge-labor, how insurgent labor produces forms of thought and collectivity capable of radically destructuring the most imperial and expansive modes of academic neoliberalism.  Thanks, Abbey.

And happy birthday to Robert Schwartz, z''l.