Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Digging through old notes

While organizing my old notes, I came across a recollection of an old dream. I considered deleting, but somehow I couldn’t part with it. Here’s my dream synapse from January 26, 2016:

Wow. I had one of the oddest nightmares I’ve ever had last night. I was trying to speak to my mom, but she couldn’t hear me, so I started to scream to get her attention. No sound was coming out, so she just stood at the bottom of our stairs, unaware. I soon realized the reason she couldn’t hear me was that I had metamorphosed into a book. I remember thinking in horror: I’m a book now. Then I woke up. 

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Extreme Boredom: A pitfall of reading a lot of literature

If it’s boring, it might be literary.

There are stylistic tropes that fling around literary writing, just like they do around marketing writing or humor writing. Marketing writing always includes some kind of manipulative “why not” statement that tips your weight off balance, making you accidentally click “buy.” Jokes tend to be gestural and feature costumes, accidents, squeamish sex or other bodily functions, self-deprecation and the like. Then we reach the literary, wherein the words are supposed to cling to our palettes like fine wine. More often than not, I find that it clings to the roof of my mouth like peanut-butter. It is precisely this everyday-plain-yet-sublime-concrete-details trope that I’m bored with. Personally, I never liked peanut butter as a child, especially since my mom always bought the chunky kind. Any other nut could have made the spread more glorious. I mean, why not grind up pistachios, instead?

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Here’s an example.

Susan Straight — award winning author — writes the following paragraph in her story, “The Perseids,” found in the most recent issue of Granta:

“He turned the binoculars on his house – thirty feet away down the long cement path bordered with river rock, past the old plow and stone water trough. The ancient redwood shingles on the house had darkened to tight black scales. The first time his best friend Manny’s father picked up Dante for baseball practice, he said to Dante’s father, ‘Damn – these shingles aren’t even painted, homes!’”

(my emphasis added)

These are precise details, surely. Yet, to me, they are so uninspiring in the imagination, that I get that peanut-butter-sticking-to-the-roof-of-my-mouth feel from reading this. Perhaps the nausea rather than sentimentality towards my Spokane, Washington upbringing has something to do with it. Our faded-glory landscape featured plenty of river rock (as I recall from when I lived there). The main geographic feature of that area was a river. This portrait reminds me of the middle-class homes that people like me could have afforded in my parents generation. River rocks remind me of the 1970s when people had an opportunity to make significant changes in society and didn’t, opting for Nixon followed not long after by Reagan. “River rock” reminds me of how my grandparents, who would take me, in the twilight of their dementia, down to the river to show me how to skip rocks. We’d watch adorable ducks waddle by, and my grandpa would tell us stories of duck hunting. The river rocks even remind me of the popular Christian-Methodist summer camp I joined once, situated along the Spokane river, with the teenage cliques and full-blown group-think episodes of Jesus-acceptance catharsis that made me feel even more alienated than my own Catholic-republican family did. River rocks as evocative details are such a turn off for me.

On to “old plow” and “stone water trough”–don’t even get me started. These are clearly out-of-use relics that have been turned into middle class decorations. Why not throw in some old boots, a long saw-tooth blade and a buffalo skull? These things once had a function, you know, and those times were not as simple and easy-going as this nostalgic home-portrait suggests. These were backbreaking days that led to newly worshiped inventions: motorized tractors and lighter weight materials such as plastic. The ease and convenience of our new technological advancements in fact make the objects in this portrait fantastical, like a stage-set designed by Ralph Lauren. Placing these items inside the frame of the picture does nothing to highlight history, since our white parents with their complicated stories of genocidal Indian Wars paired with immigration and agrarian hardship aren’t usually the history-disseminating types. So we ponder our origins by decorating with old plows. These objects aren’t placed here to hint at the forces that shaped history in this dainty portrait, but to delete them with an emphasis on our limited, yet satisfactory, purview of cozy domestic life.

Next, the “ancient redwood shingles” emphasize the distance of time as if to slap us on the face and say, “get nostalgic!” This was so far back in time, they could actually cut down redwoods and turn them into something as mundane as shingles and not even protect them with paint! Back in those days, they could easily replace such shingles, so paint was but a mere afterthought. Oh my, how the prices have changed and our world has been turned upside down by clear-cutting. It’s as if the toilet in the house is studded with diamonds–and moreover, they didn’t even bother to wipe the piss of of them! This is not a pretty picture. These were distant times with vastly plentiful resources that are now scarce. (Oops!) Rampant expansion known as “civilization” happened and now the memory of abundance tugs our heart strings. How about that California drought? Not just shingles but entire redwood forests are turning black.

The “tight black scales” of the house emphasize the ruinous state the house is in. Moreover, this house is but a fish, and that could be a reference to the Bible, even, in case you haven’t had enough of the Bible stuffed down your throat in summer camp. And do you see how the “river rock” and the “fish scales” of the house turn the portrait into a river-setting without once pointing out water? Don’t stories with rivers usually feature drowning? Just like Chekov’s theory that introducing a loaded gun in the first act only leads to one conclusion. Yet, you’ll notice how the paragraph is “balanced” with these “scales.” These interpretations are all a stretch, and the stretch doesn’t take me anywhere that triggers insight or intrigue.

I’m still bored. And the homey disrepair of the era is again emphasized by the onlooker, who gently criticizes his neighbor, as if unaware he is doing so. He is, in fact, a bit rude. But we are somehow obliged to forgive his folksy ways, because he is just a suburban bumpkin, unaware that his comments are potentially condescending. Because in ‘merica, monkey see, monkey say. We verbalize and apologize later, all unawares. We expect hearty comradeship without push back, especially in white-on-white dialogue. In other words, literature in ‘merica means a no-nonsense embrace of the banal.

Sometimes, I cannot stomach literature. Indeed, the above details are not “nice” or “sympathetic” or even “interesting” to my ear. The paragraph is the definition of nausea for me, and my boredom increases with each added “concrete detail.” Details alone don’t make a story good. The details are always strapped like a damsel in distress to some overriding Godzilla-like associations, beliefs and ideologies which can easily sweep the text away from a reader. It doesn’t comfort me to read about good-‘ole white America (the elephant in the background of this text).

I crave wit, provocation, originality, estrangement, a sense of history and an outsider status. Those are my google keywords. Perhaps that’s why I eat up Roberto Bolano’s writing like ice-cream. And perhaps this article is not fair to the author or the text. I admit I couldn’t read much beyond this paragraph of the story, so my analysis really only applies to that paragraph.

But I’m not trying to be fair, I’m trying to define my literary taste.

Book Review: & Silk & Love & Flame by Birhan Keskin

 

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“Every culture has a poetics of pathos.

In Greek, pathos means “suffering.” Aristotle defined pathos as one of the rhetorical modes of persuasion. It involves eliciting emotion to produce a desired effect on one’s audience.

In America, we have the blues, with its origins in the spirituals sung by African American slaves on plantations. The blues are laden with feelings of sorrow and hardship. However, they evolved to encompass personal themes, and political messages, without loosing their roots in suffering. The lyrics by Irving Mills of Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo take us to that poignant state (especially when sung by Billy Holiday):

‘Cause there’s nobody who cares about me
I’m just a soul who’s bluer than blue can be
When I get that mood indigo
I could lay me down and die.

A feeling of deep misery is wedded to the potency of the blues, which has been disseminated and adopted by cultural art forms of all kinds in America and beyond.

In Spain, poet Federico Garcia Lorca identified duende as the tragic streak of madness found in the work of great flamenco dancers and bull fighters. He describes it as the “earth spirit of irrationality and death,” in his book of poetic criticism titled In Search of Duende. This form of pathos found in Spanish poetics emphasizes dark and mysterious undertones of creative impulses.

For Turkish poet Birhan Keskin, a famous line of the seventeenth century folk poet Karacaoğlan concretizes the theme of pathos: “Bir Ayrılık, bir yoksulluk, bir ölüm” (A separation, a destitution, a death). In a shared “Şiir Masası” (“Poetry Roundtable”) interview conducted by Deniz Durkuan with Birhan Keskin, Ezel Akay, Serenad Bagcan and Hakan Gercek published in Pul Biber, Keskin points out that these are three primary concerns in Turkish poetics, with the themes themselves originating four or five thousand years ago with the Sumerians. (…)”

Read the full review in the Bosphorus Review of Books May Edition.

Find out how I learned about Birhan Keskin’s work by scrolling down to my Editor’s Note here.

Birhan Keskin

Birhan Keskin, poet

 

Demystifying Poetry

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It’s the tail-end of poetry month and I’ve decided to go off on a rant about poetry discourse. In America, people often assume that poetry can’t possibly be popular. Maybe if they came to Turkey, they’d change their minds. Here, people graffiti the walls with lines of Nazim Hikmet. But a shift is taking place in and around America. Just north of the border, Canada’s Rupi Kaur has shown us how huge Instagram followings for poetry can lead to book contracts. We also live in an era when pop-icons can hand-pick their own poets. Beyoncé collaborated with poet Warsan Shire to include spoken lines of poetry throughout her album Lemonade. Suddenly, it’s as if poetry can become something more than an isolated bookish art. Poetry loves new media, poetry loves sound recording, poetry loves the stage.

This month, year, decade, I’ve come across some efforts to legitimize poetry. Joshua Johnson’s podcast 1A recently aired a segment titled, “How do you know if a poem is good?” He invited guests Kevin Young, the poetry editor for the New Yorker, Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd U.S. Poet Laureate, Matthew Zapruder, the editor for poetry publisher Wave Books, and Danez Smith, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry winner to discuss.

No, a love of poetry is not akin to an odd fetish or a closeted drug addiction.

The questions were framed as if to give rise to a series of confessions: Who was your first? What got you into it? Why do you like this? Teetering towards … Aren’t you embarrassed by it? No, a love of poetry is not akin to an odd fetish or a closeted drug addiction. We don’t have to stigmatize it as such. We don’t have to hide it, nor are we obligated to represent all readers of poetry, when it is a highly personal form of art. I’ll be the first to admit it: I like poetry. Specifically, I like my own taste in poetry. Just like music, this is not a homogeneous art.

There’s a sense that poetry is not taught correctly and that if it were to be taught correctly, it would miraculously become popular. So typical. Blame the teacher. Can you tell I was a teacher? In the podcast, the guests suggest that teachers have kept poetry removed from our daily lives, forgetting that we use lines of poetry at funerals and weddings. Do we, though? The last few weddings I attended mostly involved impromptu toasts or roasts. If poetry classes were designed with the assumption that all of the students would become future poets, the same way engineering teachers see their students as future engineers, these doubts towards its relevance might disappear. But we can’t blame this on the teachers themselves. They are underpaid, overworked. No brilliant insider’s view of an “everyday” style of teaching poetry is any less offensive than an average teacher’s assumption that poetry might actually be removed from people’s daily lives. Developing a clever strand of poetry-lite is just condescending.

When prodded about the merit of poetry for laypersons, Tracy K. Smith says people simply have to “feel” poems to get them. But she follows this up with a more thorough explanation: it involves listening to the sounds of words, identifying how the poet used them, and connecting to their meaning. Kevin Young defended his role at the New Yorker, which Johnson calls an “upper-echelon” establishment, by saying that he would read the New Yorker poems in Kansas as a child. He calls the New Yorker (surprisingly) “democratic.” These are cases in the podcast when the poets didn’t want to bite on the bait. At least Young later asserts that we do bring our own framework to poetry when we identify its meaning. Going one step further, this suggests that a highly developed reader like Young will likely have a different impression of a poem than a non-reader of poetry. It is, to an extent, an acquired taste.

I don’t think poetry has to be “democratic” for people to like it. Zapruder’s comment that there’s a poem for everyone made sense to me because it implied that such a poem is NOT a poem for everyone else. I like Emily Dickinson’s riddles. I like Susan Howe’s esoteric cut-ups of Puritan speech morphology. I also like the biting decolonizing polemics of Amiri Baraka’s rhythmic poems. These are filled with clever wit and wordplay, and I like finding their layers of meaning. I didn’t attend an ivy-league university. That wasn’t a pre-requisite for liking poetry.

Poetry asks us to tune in with our mental powers, just as much as our feelings. We are linguistic creatures, and poetry recognizes this aspect of our nature. Poetry is a mixture of oral and written forms. It stands in this in-between zone of contemporaneous performance and studied composition. It combines high and low diction. It is the parasitic jester of all verbal and linguistic possibilities in the world. It is not a static art form, and it cannot be codified, either. Poetry is a malleable beast.

Intellectualism is not a crime!

Matthew Zapruder’s recent book, Why Poetry, also takes on the challenge to demystify poetry. I like that he refutes the notion that poems deceive. Again, I found myself adding a personal addendum to his point. It is as if he’s saying: poems don’t deceive; straight-talking politicians do. He also describes an in-between dreamlike state induced by poems, and he celebrates their material form, as language. Although its premise involves making poetry accessible to lay-readers, the entire book was like a easy-going fireside chat of the very same lectures on poetry that emphasize rhyme, meter, syllable stresses, metaphor, image, enjambment, etc, that these poets are blaming for “elitism.” Why can’t we just admit that poets are elitist in a sense, and that intellectualism is not a crime!

I don’t see why we’re picking a fight with the many possible tools that comprise the craft anyway, just to make the art more easy to approach or digest. These are tools that have developed over time, and just because they involve unfamiliar terminology, like “iambic pentameter,” doesn’t mean we have to negate their worth. Poetry offers a centuries-old tradition that may carry a lot of academic baggage, but it is not sealed off from time. I think the most important thing to emphasize when “demystifying poetry” is that it is a thriving art with longstanding traditions in all parts of the world, and the traditions and innovations of poetry are still unfolding. Poetry doesn’t belong to the dead, it belongs to the living.

 

What happened to me as I was writing about Don Quixote

DonQuixoteReading Don Quixote was a pleasure. Writing about it here in Istanbul in the most recent issue of the Bosphorus Review of Books became surreal. I became a detective. I ravaged all kinds of external sources including one of my favorites, Echevarria’s Open Yale Lectures on Don Quixote. Who was this Cervantes, this strange Spanish author fighting the Ottomans and staying captive in Algiers?

My mind started to draw a lot of parallels. Don Quixote seemed to be creating strange links between elements of my life that are otherwise disconnected. I don’t really know what to make of it. I think its a facet of my own quixotic “literary madness.” It’s when we start to see connections across the mediums: between things we’ve read or seen and the reality we’ve actually experienced or even dreamed.And this makes one framework melt into the other. I even dreamt I was releasing prisoners a few nights ago, just as Don Quixote does in one of the scenes.

The fact that Don Quixote goes off to live a romantic lifestyle that he read about sounds so familiar. I did the same by becoming an expat with dreams of writing my novel abroad. It’s not quite the same as a knight errant, but I think the source of inspiration is similar–it’s the inspiration wrought by my library. The heroes of my books, though, are usually the authors themselves.

But then when Quixote meets an arbitrator (I work for a law firm specializing in international arbitration), and the Captain Piedma travels to Istanbul as a slave (the city I live in, which sometimes feels like it has captured me), and a wealthy Moor named Zoraida goes to Spain (one of my closest friends in Istanbul is from Morocco), and when I started reading about how scholars spread news that Cervantes had worked on the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque (which is a five minute walk from my doorstep), I started to feel attached like an adoring Little Prince to a particular fox who warms his heart. And it also happens that a few of the most renowned philologists who have theorized the Quixote are Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach, both of whom were émigrés in Istanbul for a time to escape Nazi Germany. Even the theme of captivity happens to be something I touched on in my earlier studies on themes of Puritan literature (Mary Rowlandson) and my head looped back to that area of interest. It’s almost too much to bear for one little literary soul.

Am I living in my own Cervantine reality?

I just find it sad, strange, and unfortunate that in our time, the weight of thought control and book burning is felt more here in Istanbul than elsewhere. And to think our own sweet city is where people once escaped from such treatment . . .

For less wistful on the book please read my essay in the Bosphorus Review of Books.

Link round-up: mistranslation

We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders.

 

One of the first essays that really turned me on to translation–not as a practice, but as a kind of ‘genre’ of literary critique–was Borges’ essay on the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights.

The Thousand and One Nights by Jorge Luis Borges

Of course, the evocative and elusive essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” came soon thereafter.

The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin

While translation promises the noble pursuit of universal communication, more often we are such tribal, provincial, territorial creatures that our language resists transcendence–sometimes intentionally so.

We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders. And this applies not only to languages of nations, but to languages of different professions, languages of different races, and even language differences between generations.

One thing that has become clear to me, both from reading these essays and from living abroad and trying my own hand at translation, is that mistranslation is inevitable. Delightfully so!

For those with the necessary insider knowledge, mistranslations are a joy to unravel for the humor that arises from discovering the latent boundaries between different languages. I even find discussions on mistranslation entertaining to read. That’s why I’ve created a list of articles that take a stab at identifying and decoding mistranslations in some capacity.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Admittedly, this is just meant as fodder for nerdy amusement. I do realize, though, that such discussions are capable of starting holy wars when sacred texts are involved. I also know from editing translated book quotations that it is very easy to mince/distort the words of non-native speakers, who are often very important people (such as when people assumed that JFK made the err of saying “I’m a jelly doughnut” in German). This is when the humor turns sour. But, alas, that’s for another post/author/blog to discuss. I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. Add your own links in the comments, if you feel inspired.

xo, Erica

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She (also) brought us “The End of Imagination”

This year brought us Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which I have not yet read. She soared to the top of any publisher’s chart in the wake of her first novel, God of the Small Things, and then “disappeared” (for some) into her role as an activist, non-fiction commentator on politics. When people craved the artist, she narrated the facts. We should be grateful! I just finished reading her collected essays, The End of Imagination published in 2016 by Haymarket Books. What I’m about to write is rough–culled from memory–because I don’t have the time to go searching through my kindle for quotes or anecdotes found in the book. Then again, I never promised polished, perfect analysis on this site.

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What a soreness it is to see how deeply entrenched we are in the same themes she wrote about starting nearly twenty years ago–nuclear arms races, displacement via multinational investments in hydroelectric power and dams that devastated the Indian landscape, crisis market economics, the Afghanistan War, and the longstanding impact of the Patriot Act and the War on Terrorism following 9/11. She honors Noam Chomsky in these pages and questions her role as an author with a deeply committed spirit of activism that does not look away. She distinguishes the importance of her role as a fiction and a writer of non-fiction, which she bemoans for falling into the category of activist-writing. Labels haunt her because her work, as any work of a brilliant author would, constantly defies them.

I found this collection profound and impassioned–urgent. How have we sustained this treacherous urgency for so long without apparent headway or resolution? Reading these essays lifted any veil that clouded my vision about the curse of neoliberalism. Where can I possibly start?

I felt relieved of some ignorance after reading this book. I have read North American tales of neoliberalism brought to us by Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. I have read European theoretical critiques brought to us by Guy Debord, Tikkun, Franco Berardi, Zizek, Serres, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, but these didn’t draw me in like Roy’s pages. The approach is different. Testimonies and pure blasphemy, not theories, are narrated to us as a comprehensive story in Roy’s text. Her wit ascends proportionately to the horror. She paints a picture of liberal ignorance, freedoms being stripped away, the gloss of democracy that maintains perpetual warfare, and so on and so forth.

When she questions her role as an artist, she is questioning a thousand-year-old caste system. These are lived injustices, that she gives testament to–not by accident, but by an investment in opening herself up to the social wounds at her disposal. She does not suppress them for her own benefit. She is not one to hide her head in the nearest hole or gloss over the havoc wreaked upon individual lives for the sake of her educated audience. Her writing stings and sings. She acknowledges her implication in injustice while with such a candid outcry and binds herself to the cause of poor people and the environment by unraveling tight knots of hypocrisy.

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She reminds us that nowhere on paper can we find the economic benefits that hydroelectric building projects bestowed upon India. She is waving the non-existent reports in the thin-air and counting up the lives of the displaced–all from the lower strata of society–now virtually disappeared as an interest group. Resettlement promises were not kept and the losses merely place those people who depended on their small farming for survival–on lands now immersed by a reservoir–in perpetual limbo without relief.

Now, if you’re following the news, these hydroelectric dams are guaranteed to investors in Brazil, causing very similar indigenous strife for the sake of very dubious benefits to society, considering their guaranteed deforestation and pollution of the rain forest and its watersheds. The social benefits of the developmental-craze sweeping across “developing countries” has proven false–again and again. The same goes for Turkey, where I currently live, with its debt-driven megaprojects.

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Roy reveals the hypocrisy of Nelson Mandela to remind us that market economy politics is not a sacred sphere. Even our saints could not withstand its pressures. It is a rigged, delusional battle of unjust promises to wealthy investors backed by militaristic regimes. The apartheid continues under the false guise of a democratic market economy (an oxymoron).

The insistence of her words gave my own vision of dissent new life. I found it acceptable after reading this book to call myself an anti-American. To articulate the precise moments when the government and its henchmen conflate its policies with romantic ideals to relieve itself of accusation. To recall that secretary of state Madeleine Albright could write off Iraqi children as collateral damage, a simple calculation error, and brush it aside as a necessary part of the process. So often, I don’t know how to speak about these things, let alone how to demand justice. She offers up her own voice on behalf of others. She is generous in that regard. She wants us to take her passion and let it ignite our own.

What are the crimes she cries out against? Crimes of globalization, i.e., that the global market economy is simply a more efficient, updated form of imperialism. Guarantees for investments can wreak havoc by displacing millions of poor citizens with the click of a mouse. Instability and crisis are not merely symptoms, but strategic tools in this system of distraction. The military is the backbone to the economy. Things we’ve heard before–but she reminds us that we need to pay attention, for the power to resist lies in public outcry.

She reminds us that the Taliban was in part a U.S. invention because Afghanistan had been primed and stoked to become more zealous in its religious opposition of communist Russia, as a ploy by the U.S. This was back in the 1970s. She articulates with ease how weapons are sold to both sides of an argument by the U.S. These are not details to overlook and write off as coincidental marginalia. Her book gives a vision of what it means to connect the dots, and to dedicate oneself to caring, to speaking out about what interpretation tells us.

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She details how terrorism is used as a blanket term to crush non-aligned ideologies, beliefs, critiques, protests, etc. This manipulative rhetoric was devised by the U.S. and exported to developing countries. She describes how this occurred in India with its armed backlash against Muslims and it fittingly describes the situation in Turkey, where the military coup attempt was followed by an exploitative system of mass-jailings, firings, and etc. to initiate an educational, financial and political restructuring of the country to benefit the wealthy few. All in the name of democracy.

So I read it with my mouth agape in astonishment and I suggest you do the same.

 

 

On American sexism of late

When Hugh Hefner died, I didn’t shed a tear. Hugh Hefner was easy to ridicule and ignore for the most part. I tried to ignore the cringe in my gut when his face appeared in magazines. Turn the page. Men who lead harems are considered powerful by some standards–those of likeminded men. But by other standards–those of many women–these men are considered if not outwardly, then inwardly inferior. They are making up for some deep, gaping inadequacy. Trump’s small hands became a symbol for this kind of inadequacy, because as the wive’s tale goes: hand size correlates. This is the standard women’s interpretation, is it not?

Now what about Harems? Or the modern American capitalist version: the Playboy mansion. Of course harems are a separate culturally specific phenomena–I’ve toured Topkapı Palace, I even live in Istanbul. But I mean the compounds of women, collected as property, that seem to symbolize women’s dependence on male taste, wealth, and status. Oftentimes the male figureheads of such compounds are double or triple the age of their women property. The age-gap gives the entire arrangement an air of uncanny pedophiliac impurity. A kind of geriatric flavor, in which the future death and linked inheritance of a wealthy individual becomes a fetishized, sexualized commodity in and of itself. The women inside such a harem compete for power linked to their sex appeal. The women inside probably feel powerful, too. Their function is to oppress other women almost as much as the men themselves, just by their sheer quantity and by the harem’s internal hierarchy.

But women in a harem don’t determine the power. They don’t own it. They just profit off of it. Some people say these women should not be blamed. We say women should not be shamed for turning into parasites of the swollen patriarchal system. Those women are needy, too, just like women who choose self-determination. Well, if not blamed, what about educated? Would these women still exist if women’s consciousness on the whole could improve a bit?

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Hugh Hefner seemed to choose duplicates of the same woman-type. Hugh Hefner perpetuated the blond Barbie-like Pamela Anderson look. Women who find Hugh Hefner’s system oppressive may also have a distaste for that look, like I do. It is likewise a very racially specific look. My impulse is to defend myself against it by pointing out its flawed sense of beauty: it’s fake, it’s exaggerated, it lacks nuance, it lacks character, it lacks eccentricity, it’s narrow minded, it’s cliche, it’s formulaic, and etc. People compare women with this look to thoroughbreds, pieces of meat, isolated body parts–like a piece-of-ass, or other ways of seeing that are perhaps more familiar to wealthy people who are attuned to the monetary values and graded qualities of their possessions, like the percentages of stock indexes. People want to place beauty into statistical models, percentages, ranking systems and other capitalist ways of thinking. Beauty competitions serve the same function–women are compared, weighed, measured, eliminated, made scarce, and more or less commoditized.

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What else? This Harvey Weinstein guy from Miramax is suddenly “exposed” in the media. High-profile women had been holding off for years. This is the harem of Hollywood. Women who hadn’t been a victim of his antics denied even knowing about his sexist bullying. He has been called “smart” and “manipulative” by women who apparently disapprove of him. Like a cunning fox? Don’t give him that credit. Don’t excuse him. He was a producer in a position of power who used this power to oppress women by way of a kind of sexual initiation or rite of passage. Some women refused, but they also chose avoidance until now.

Avoidance is an easy coping mechanism. It makes sense in a way. If you have enough of a foothold to stand upright in a career, independently, then you can ignore the dirty politics influencing others around you. You cry tears with the women who experienced it the worst, you feel for them, but you do not necessarily financially support or go out on a legal limb and testify on their behalf. Many women choose not to expose themselves on behalf of their suffering sisters. But real support requires this courage. Real anti-sexist support is material in the sense that it legally protects or financially benefits, or takes care of another’s basic needs, or creates systems that enable that kind of support. These forms of support can bring stability for other women and ourselves. We need to form safety nets, safe spaces, and networks.  

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Avoidance is a way of accepting the system of relative advantage. By this, I mean politely choosing to profit individually. It’s what I assume women of color are actually complaining about when they complain about white women. All women are struggling to “stay afloat.” When women should be building safety nets for one another, across racial lines, across age lines, across cultural lines, disability lines, across so many lines of difference, they instead play this game of avoidance and subtle one up(wo)manship. Women have the power to organize and ensure that the fall to the bottom is not so catastrophic. Women can become mentors, leaders, and organizers. One specific example is planned parenthood. Don’t let men decide its fate! I often wonder where are the women’s versions of “fraternal orders?” Where are the women who show willingness to financially and materially support one another?

Women traditionally do this in the private sphere. They rear families. They contribute all of their time and energy to the interests of others. Perhaps the idea of transposing that mindset into the public sphere seems too inhibiting. Perhaps women just want to escape the care-taking role altogether. Or perhaps their care taking role has always been independent all along, in a sense. Mothers can often singularly dominate without question. Perhaps that is what many women crave in their public lives as well. A kind of independent domination of their own sphere of influence.

In other words, it seems that women often prefer gaining entrance onto sinking patriarchal ships–to prove their equality in comparison to men. They’d rather pursue this than practice equality among one another. I often crave inter-gender equality and respect. Such equality depends on the more difficult alternative of building a ship, hiring crews, and captaining women-owned fleets. Systemic sexism would not be included in the by-laws.

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So many women did not speak out about Weinstein until now. Why now? I didn’t follow this issue that closely, but let’s look at the president. This seems like a case of diverted energy. Aren’t so many women just angry about the current president? Just replay the tapes of Trump’s voice and remember what a heinous individual he is toward women. Just watch him place his hand on his daughter’s ass again. If we can’t oust the biggest sexist in power, then at least we can focus on one at the heart of the entertainment industry of Hollywood. At least we can join our Women’s March on Washington. We can get angry at his rhetoric toward women and lash out at so many other sexists because they are around us everywhere. We have a constant reminder in the white house of how much work is left to be done.

But what if Hillary had won the election? Then what would’ve happened? Let’s rewind. Obama won the election twice. This did not take away police brutality. This did not stop systemic racism. Rotating figureheads in or out of leadership roles creates symbolic, not systemic change. We should try to understand the difference, because we should place our bets on the latter. We need to take ownership, not just fill the roles of a system that has been in place for centuries.

Symbolic change is based on flimsy outward notions of identity–the same labeling and profiling mechanisms that racism depends on. Systemic change is based on seeing beyond the limited careers of charismatic individuals. What inspires me still about the authors of the U.S. constitution is their self-awareness about authoring systemic change. I don’t understand why our system doesn’t have a simple safety net to avoid politicians like Trump in the form of a minimum entrance exam regarding foreign and domestic policy. Politicians should have to pass an admissions test to enter politics. This is just one minor example of how we could strengthen the system. But we should all remember that Trump got into power due to a systemic change. Citizens United eliminated caps on private campaign funding. This is an example of how easily our democratic safety nets can be removed. Taking this into account, systemic, not symbolic progress should be the primary target for women.

I honestly haven’t done much to research my own blog topic. This one has been off the cuff. Feel free to add your thoughts or resources in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Elinor Ostrom’s no fuss solution to the Tragedy of the Commons

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To me, Elinor Ostrom’s ideas seem normal and reasonable. They don’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination. In fact, they seem so strikingly ordinary, that they could easily be overlooked out of context. Yet, our time is marked by the complex quagmire of globalized neoliberal market economics that has gained almost unchallenged traction. In this context, her intuitive and relatively simple ideas are considered revolutionary.

What she is most known for is her so-called Nobel Prize in Economics. To be more specific, she won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel of 2009, as there is technically no prize devoted specifically to economics. Elinor Ostrom was an odd choice, considering she was an outsider to economics. She was more well known for her work in political science and ecology; she was a woman whose ideas do not fall neatly into any ideological camp. Yet, she had essentially devised a template or a “design” to deal with the “tragedy of the commons,” a problem which presupposes the inability of civilizations to manage commonly held resources without depleting or destroying them. This theory was promulgated by ecologist Garret Hardin, who popularized the idea of overpopulation as the leading difficulty facing humankind with his famous 1968 paper entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” However, Elinor Ostrom found many examples of people managing commons without such calamitous outcomes through her empirical observations and related scientific research.

She derived from her research eight underlying design principles which she had observed in communities in Africa that did not exhaust their commonly held resources:

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

1. Define clear group boundaries.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

These principles sound rather quotidian to me. They are fair, egalitarian, respectful, diplomatic, inclusive, and practical in that no abstract models are required to implement them. They are spun from the fiber of common sense. Arguably, the only reason such principles could be considered revolutionary is because of how detached, abstract, and obscure modern economic theory has become. It is loaded with jargon, indoctrination methods, and complex calculation models that require a steep learning curve just to approach an everyday topic — how resources are managed. Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics theories (which Naomi Klein calls free market fundamentalism in her book The Shock Doctrine) have prevailed so much that their linked neoliberal ideology has become naturalized as the status quo. Plenty of criticism from economic thinkers has targeted this ideology, but for Derek Wall, few critics have broken ties with it so fully as Elinor Ostrom because of her ability to think beyond markets and states. The fact that she is able to think outside of the “norm” of these prevailing theories makes people consider her work incredibly shocking, hopeful, and influential.

It should not go without saying that her work derives directly from the third world — from “under-developed” countries and their local communities. Such an approach veritably flips the teleology of “progress” on its head even though her theory has been upheld by the progressive West as the next step forward for the dilemma of the “tragedy of the commons.” In fact, she honored the wisdom of locals for its potential to protect their lands more effectively than governments. Her premise is reinforced by a recent study on how indigenous Peruvians are more effective at managing and conserving land than their regulatory government.

All in all, her theories are literally closer to home than neoliberal models of consumer capital, derivatives, markets and shares, states and all of the related terminology that constructs a grand farce of “economic reality” in our time. Her work serves as a means to call a spade a spade. She reminds us that common resource management is, in its simplest terms, a socially-constructed set of rules and determinations made by and for the people who depend on those resources. It does not gain strategic, ethical, or economic superiority through the adoption of a top-down abstract management ethos that drowns us in a complex lexicon designed to implement our social conditioning as market-based consumers by means of manipulative puppet-mastery.

On “Husbandry,” as a form of conviction in writing

I believe Susan Sontag was fully cognizant of the verb form of the word “husband” when she wrote her piece, “An Ideal Husband.” To husband means “to manage prudently and economically,” or to “use sparingly” according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary. These attributes seem suited to stoics or ascetics who define their lives by what they have not exploited, rather than by what they have. Concision is often cited as hallmark of good writing these days. Perhaps Sontag used the word “husband” to suggest that we should apply the mantra “kill your darlings” to the moral sphere as well as to the words themselves (heaven forbid we judge the “content” as well as the “form”), which might put a halt to our contemporary proliferation of maximalist and autofictional writers.

In “An Ideal Husband,” Susan Sontag divides great writers into two categories–husbands (those writers with a moral conscience and a sense of civic duty) and lovers (those who offer the short-lived feverishness and excitement of madmen). She claimed in 1963, that the modern world was filled with lovers, but not enough husbands, unlike in other periods of literary history when the opposite was true. Then she goes on to describe how Albert Camus nearly fit the bill of an “Ideal Husband” as a writer.

Though the lopsided categorization excludes even a nod to women as possible “great” literary figures, I’m intrigued by her classifications because I realize I share her thirst for a moral conscience in writing. I crave people whose inherently intertwined roles as an artist and a person are not arbitrary or loose connections that we should counter-intuitively compartmentalize. I seek a unity of purpose in authorship and in life, and a foresight which does not exclude others through frenetic impulse or an advertisement of desire at the expense of others.

Authors such as Shruti Swamy, W.G. Sebald, Michael Ondaatje, and even Susan Howe appeal to me for their qualities as good “husbands” in that I feel invested in their deep conviction in simultaneous aesthetic and moral thresholds that bind (or bound) them to their history and personal complicity in our time.

For me, moral consciousness depends on the ability to reflect upon our historical role and our place in the world amidst others not in spite of them. In order to do so, I feel that writers must depend on their ability to translate across divides of time, consciousnesses, and linguistic and cultural norms, and whether this crossing derives from the pith of the language, or the divestment of one’s originality for the sake of testimony–to give valor the unseen, lost spark in a footnote (or ideally, to accomplish both), it depends on solidarity with others, all of them. I feel an attraction to writers who navigate the sharp divisions of time, place, and self-interest that otherwise bind us to our various forms of narcissism.

A bond is never solely a comfortable relationship. To be bound is the condition of relative, limited freedom, which denotes sacrifice of possibility in order to maintain a level of comfort. Possibility is the antithesis to sanity and to really embrace it responsibly requires endurance, discipline, and sobriety, even, since possibility, contrary to its stated claims, is a limiting factor which also binds us. Each possibility is achieved by the exclusion of others. When one is bound by history, or bound by a deep investment in respect for humanity and the natural world, a state of grace lingers in that person’s works. This is how an author who is a “husband” with a long-term, purposeful conviction, beyond temporary pleasure can be trusted.

Naturally, the risk of writing which derives from moral conviction is to lose sight of the temporal, sensual, aesthetic pleasures that surround us in favor of aphorism. Let the subtle sounds of wind blowing through the tree leaves and the breath-ornamented silences between strangers remind you who you are and what unseen rifts there are to cross. Knowing pigeons, too, are watching us from the boughs of those trees. We never go unseen; we are always passing through one register or another.