criticism

The Erotic Queer Double

Leloir - Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1865)

[Alexander Louis Leloir’s painting of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1865)]

In a scene from the 2003 HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Joe comes home to his wife (named “Harper” and nicknamed “buddy”), with whom he’d just had a fight the previous night, and tells her about Jacob wrestling with the Angel (see clip; part 1, chapter 2). He had this book of bible stories as a kid and there was this image that, he says, he looked at “twenty times every day”; he doesn’t “even remember the story, or why they’re wrestling—just the picture.” Struck by it, Joe now offers the image as the answer to the question his wife had asked the previous night. This was the question that, because it had gone unanswered, or had only been further closeted with answers, had led to the fight, the question that Joe, teary-eyed, indirectly answers by describing the image:

Jacob is young, and very strong. And the Angel is a … beautiful man with … golden hair and wings, of course. I still dream about it, many nights, and … it’s me, in that struggle … fierce and unfair. The Angel’s not human and it holds nothing back … so how can anyone human win? What kind of a fight is that? It’s not just! Soul thrown down to dust, your heart torn out from God’s, but … you can’t not lose …

What is Joe wrestling, as it were, to say here? Who is the angel that Jacob is wrestling with? What does the angel signify in this story, in Joe’s memory? And what is it about Jacob with which Joe identifies? The scene that Joe recreates from memory is a fight, in some ways a repetition of what took place between him and his wife, indeed a physical manifestation of what almost, but did not, verbally come out in last night’s fight. On the surface, the angel is the adversary with whom Joe, in the person of Jacob, finds himself fighting, the danger from which he aims to liberate himself in a contest in which he wants to “not lose” but fears he “can’t not” … In other words, the scene, as Joe presents it, is a struggle, a relation of conflict, of hostility, an intricate contest with the enemy. And yet Jacob, as Joe also says, is “young and very strong,” the angel “beautiful,” “golden,” “a beautiful man with golden hair and wings,” the two engaged in a fight Joe “still dream[s] about […] many nights.” The scene that Joe recreates as a belated answer, truer than the direct answers he had given the previous night, is thus not just a fight, but the layering of multiple fights on top of each other, fights, as it were, multiply doubled, or a fight doubling itself into multiple forms: the answer that Joe couldn’t give in the fight (with his wife) is itself a fight (between man and angel) that he aims not to but knows he will lose, something he at the same time unconsciously wants to lose, i.e. a given both resisted and desired, fighting inside of him (“it’s me, in that struggle”), the two sides, the(ir) doubleness, the cause of both the fight/s and of the dream of its passing/return, what Joe is both, and “still,” fighting for/against. Thus the contestatory, undecidable space between two sides, the suspension of doubleness characterized by struggle, what Joe refers to as a “fight,” is, through the recreation of a memory / the painting of fantasy, the answer that, after all, if indirectly, Joe gives to his wife to suspend its (re)surfacing, the process of going around in circles ultimately providing, through doubling, the answer in like kind.

In this (multiply doubled) fight, Joe identifies the angel as the enemy. “The Angel’s not human,” he says, “and it holds nothing back,” which makes the fight “fierce and unfair.” Celestial, the angel is not only more powerful; he is unburdened by the rules of men, which, it can be inferred, is what gives him power: “hold[ing] nothing back,” the angel does what he wants, unlike Joe who cannot answer the question, who cannot bear the answer. This makes the angel beautiful, seductive, like his robe and wings, white but thick, ruffled, shaded, impure, amoral, out of this world—his power, seduction, and otherness, the way that he’s “not human,” both constituting a threat and inciting desire (which may be the more fatal threat), hence his designation as the enemy to be defeated, disavowed … The angel is the opponent, Joe says, he “holds nothing back,” yet once he’d caught Joe, once Jacob had been enclosed, the angel struggles to be let go, he holds back. That is, the struggle is not only threatening and seductive, but seductive and frustrating, frustrating thereby seductive, “fierce and unfair.” Jacob’s youthful strength emanates from his body, the shapes sculpted by his muscles the dark match of the ones on the angel. The power expressed on Jacob’s body mark not so much the effort to defeat or escape from an enemy, but the exertion, seemingly much stronger than the angel’s, to hold the angel down, keep him there, embrace him. Joe says that the angel “holds nothing back,” yet it is man who is naked, whose strength is more pronounced, who has the clear and determined expression on his face, who’s disrobed from the darkness of red to uncover his darker flesh. This is in contrast to the angel, whose body is covered by cloth, whose face is subdued, frugal, who seems to want to stop what is happening. The scene is supposed to be a struggle, but it is less adversarial than erotic, indeed erotic at its root, the vigorous expression of Jacob’s desire to pull the angel to the ground, down to his world, to make him stay—in which, however, the angel holds back, shows restraint by hiding his face, by attempting to fly off. The holding back makes Jacob want to hold on tighter, makes Joe still dream about the angel. In other words, the withholding of the higher being is the hook that seduces desire that at the same time frustrates it indefinitely, impossibly, thus seducing man, in fact inflaming his desire—and all over again … “What kind of a fight is that?” Joe asks. “It’s not just.” Your heart is torn out from God’s, but and by that very fact you constantly seek God, but instead you find his messenger, the angel, you think he’ll lift you up from dust, but, in fact, you’re just pulling him down—but, as it turns out, you can’t do that either. “You can’t not lose.”

The angel is indeed a celestial being, but the lowest kind—an unworthy substitute, a debased supplement, not much higher than man. “Are you a homo?” Joe’s wife asks him the previous night. This is the question to which Joe offers multiple answers: “No.” “What if I am …?” “Does it make any difference that I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I fought with everything I have to kill it?” And then: the duplicitous image of man wrestling with the angel. The angel that man is wrestling with, as it turns out, is not that different from himself, not much higher, is in fact intimately related to him: simultaneously the ideal desired and the fellow fallen. The angel, in other words, is the double of man, and in multiple senses: the other image of himself, the object of desire and the subject of prohibition, the figure by which man works through his all-too-human desires. The figure of the angel, not that different from man, indeed based on man, intimates how man is his own narcissistic object of desire and author of the law that prohibits this abject desire for oneself, man’s abjection in the first place the reason why the angel is desired and why the angel, the higher being, withholds. In other words, because he is a desiring being, man is in a fight with himself, the other with whom he’s fighting figured in the form of an angel, the double that allows man to get at his duplicitous, abject/narcissistic desire through triangulation. Thinking that he’s fighting the angel, who’s unjustly and impossibly imposing on him, Joe has in fact taken up its role, forbidding his desires thinking that this gives him power (to control his desires), unconsciously identifying with the angel against and in order to repair the pre-given identification with Jacob, the man who holds on to the angel, i.e. man and his wretched desire. In the process, Joe denies as well what draws him to the angel in the first place, what makes him not want to let it go, namely, human desire and its paradox, this suspending it in its doubleness and perpetuating it in a crisis state, causing it to resurface every now and then in increasingly tensed fights with Harper. Is this the only choice? Can man really recognize and let the angel come out of the closet, in its doubleness? But the angel is itself debased, but a pawn in the condition of doubleness that keeps man, in his desire, in a vicious circle. Is it only through this abject/narcissistic form of power that is the angel, the queer triangulation of divine prohibition and abject desire, that man, in his fallen condition, has any fighting chance at fulfillment at all?

criticism, political economy, politics

Degrees of Absolute Evil

dick-the-man-in-the-high-castle

I would argue that the text of the moment is The Man in the High Castle, the book written by Philip K. Dick (1962) and the series created by Frank Spotnitz (2015) based on the premise that the Allies lost WWII to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, an alternate history pursued in two genres with substantial differences. The novel reads more like philosophy as it makes us privy to the characters’ thoughts while the series is a suspense thriller, hence its more obvious plot structure and emphasis on action. Race, especially in the uncanny reversals between white and yellow, is very palpable in the novel, but Dick’s characterization of Juliana leaves a lot to be desired (an understatement; although what she does toward the end does make up for it) whereas she is the lead in the series. The most striking difference, however, lies in the depiction of the Japanese, a difference, I argue, that sheds light on the various forms taken by imperialist power predicated on violence, repression, and the blatant disregard for human life, and hence on degrees of absolute evil.

Weirdly, the Japanese are portrayed in the novel—I don’t quite know how to put it—as “too nice” (again, I would stress how weird this is). Maybe this is because, unlike in the series where they are abrasively present, the Kempeitai, the secret police of the Imperial Japanese Army, does not figure prominently in the novel; as such, we only get acquainted with Japanese characters that, as in the series, are sympathetic. The portrayal of the Japanese, however, does not rely merely on omission. Early on, we find Tagomi, Trade Minister in San Francisco (part of the Pacific States ruled by the Japanese), a “kindly” (212) “Buddhist” (211), the figure of wisdom in both the novel and the series, telling a German co-conspirator, “During the war, […] I held minor post in District of China. In Shanghai. There, at Hongkew, a settlement of Jews, interned by Imperial Government for duration. Kept alive by JOINT relief. The Nazi minister at Shanghai requested we massacre the Jews. I recall my superiors’ answer. It was, ‘Such was not in accord with humanitarian considerations.’ They rejected the request as barbaric. It impressed me” (76). This is not historically consistent, even in the context of the alternate history of the novel. Japanese soldiers were notorious in their brutality in WWII in places like the Philippines—just ask the comfort women and the soldiers of the Death March. War crimes and human rights violations were part and parcel of life in an empire that, like its German counterpart, was militarist, state nationalist, expansionist, and totalitarian, if under the banner of the sun.

In contrast, in the series, the Japanese police is well represented, and they’re not as bad as the Nazis, but … Juliana’s foray into the Neutral Zone (the Rockies) in a quest, as her sister’s substitute (not in the novel), to join the Resistance and find the Man in the High Castle puts Frank, her boyfriend whose grandfather happens to be Jewish, in the hands of Inspector Kido, the head of the Kempeitai (the analogous scene in the book is Frank’s arrest by American policemen, who threaten, even though he’s US-born, to deport him to Germany [205-6]). Kido brings in Frank’s sisters and her kids as well, locks them in a room and then tells Frank, “You’ve heard of Zyklon D? […] It is much improved since the war. Odorless and fast-acting. They’ll fall asleep and never wake up” (S1E2) (in contrast, in the novel, Frank reflects about how the Japanese “would no more set up gas ovens than they would melt their wives into sealing wax” [10]). The allusion to the Nazi gas chambers is unmistakable, if made more “civilized”—consistent with what in the novel is alluded to as Japanese subtlety in contrast to white crudeness —this form of torture suggested as deliberate, Kido having told Frank earlier that “Jews don’t get to decide if they’re Jews.” Kido does all this so that Frank would tell him where Juliana is; otherwise, he doesn’t care: “There are no Jews in Japan, after all.” Kido, in other words, is not genocidal, but he’s all too willing to abide by Nazi genocidal policies and employ Nazi methods to get what he wants. And what does he want? In the series, the Man in the High Castle is producing these films that show the Allies winning the war, “a different world, a better world,” as Juliana says (S1E2). These films are interpreted as a danger to the current world order (not made explicit why), but it is the Führer (still alive in the series) who is really obsessed with them. Kido’s efforts can thus be interpreted as done in the service of Japan, but is really of benefit, of primary interest, to the German Reich. Even if sovereign Japanese, then, Kido is portrayed as a delegate of the Reich—this despite the tensions between the two empires even more palpable in the series. This is part of the series’ larger point about how the Empire of Japan is no less fascist than Nazi Germany. In this regard, the statement, “There are no Jews in Japan, after all,” is particularly troubling. Japan, it would seem, in contrast to the novel’s “humanitarian considerations,” is not genocidal against Jews only because they don’t have to be. This raises the question, then: If not Jews, who? If fascism arises in another setting in which perhaps Jews are not the target (but perhaps they also are), who will be put in their place?

The series is able to raise this question because it refuses to whitewash Japanese brutality, thereby clarifying that fascism is not specific or limited to Nazi Germany. But does Dick really whitewash the Japanese (if so, like his depiction of women, this would be curious)? Why do the Japanese feel “nice” in the novel? This, I argue, is due to the way in which they are set in contrast to the Nazis, who are portrayed as extremely bad, in fact, as absolutely evil—precisely because white. In chapter 6, along with other high-ranking Imperial officials Tagomi is summoned to the Japanese Foreign Office for a briefing on the death of the Reich Chancellor (essentially the Führer, Hitler already dead). Speculating on possible replacements, the Foreign Office spokesman offers a “dry, slow recitation” of Nazi notables and their achievements (a scene of comparable horror is yet to be presented in the series, which is more focused on the Resistance), culminating in “Doctor Seyss-Inquart. Former Austrian Nazi, now in charge of Reich colonial areas, responsible for colonial policies. Possibly most hated man in Reich territory. Said to have instigated most if not all repressive measures dealing with conquered peoples. Worked with Rosenberg for ideological victories of most alarming grandiose type, such as attempt to sterilize entire Russian population remaining after close of hostilities. No facts for certain on this, but considered to be one of several responsible for decision to make holocaust of African continent thus creating genocide conditions for Negro population. Possibly closest in temperament to original Führer, A. Hitler” (99). At this point, Tagomi feels that he’s “going mad”: “I have to get out of here; I am having an attack. My body is throwing up things or spurting them out—I am dying” (99). When he recovers, he realizes, “There is evil! It’s actual like cement” (100). Seyss-Inquart may be the worst, but he is not the only one—Göring, Himmler, Goebbels, Heydrich and Schirach already having been described by the spokesman—his acts not the only hallmarks of Nazism. In fact, Tagomi missed what the spokesman said next: “The Home Islands take the view that Germany’s scheme to reduce the populations of Europe and Northern Asia to the status of slaves—plus murdering all intellectuals, bourgeois elements, patriotic youth and what not—has been an economic catastrophe. Only the formidable technological achievements of German science and industry have saved them. Miracle weapons, so to speak” (101).

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criticism

The Courage and Limits of Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair

I must admit that when Bruce Jenner first came out as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair (7/2015; see full article), I took notice but didn’t think of the act as particularly significant. In the context of the other news of the day—the police killings of unarmed black civilians, the enduring recession, currently coming to a head in the Greek debt crisis—my gut instinct was to criticize the moneyed and celebrity position from which Caitlyn is coming. My first thoughts went something like: of course she can afford to do that, unlike others who might feel the same way, indeed others who have more urgent medical concerns, but do not have the resources of the top 1%; of course she can think about being “who she really is” rather than settling with a given he can’t change, indeed can’t even think about, given more grounded preoccupations, say, with daily material needs; of course she would have a commodified response to a crisis revolving around gender felt as personal, given his own commodification as an Olympic athlete and American hero.

Jenner’s acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPY (see clip) dispelled these reservations. This award was a necessary follow-up to the Vanity Fair cover as it situated Jenner in context, both where he’s coming from and where she plans to go, in the process driving home the significance of Caitlyn, all this taking place in an especially pertinent setting. Yes, there are other problems that do need our attention, but those pertaining to gender and sexuality, as highlighted in this case by a sports event, are not to be ignored. The harrowing statistics of trans violence in this country alone highlight the political urgency of trans justice, which Jenner claims was a motivation for her to come out. The same goes for arguments that question whether Jenner, and not some other athlete who has gone through more significant hardship, deserves the award (see brief profile of Arthur Ashe). There are, indeed, other minorities who are also oppressed, perhaps more than the subjects that Caitlyn represents, certainly more than Jenner herself, but pointing this out is less an argument against giving Caitlyn a public platform than an argument for devising more ways to grant recognition. This is so especially since subjective recognition, like struggle itself, is not exclusive, but shared and contagious. As such, the complaint, “What about X? Don’t they deserve it more?” (contrast to: “Our fellows won something they needed!”), is counterproductive. Among other things, it resentfully and unwittingly participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy by which the dominant keeps the oppressed, well, oppressed.

As for Jenner’s privilege and celebrity, first, when it comes down to it, it means nothing; and secondly, it is, in fact, an advantage, and not only for Jenner. Everyone who is privileged in some way (thanks to background, talent, looks, etc.) knows that such privilege proves cheap in the face of an attribute that could be exploited as a weakness. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, there is always a closet in which one finds oneself in, no matter how out one thinks him/herself to be, no matter how open the environment. This is because you can be respected for something in which you are considered “good” or “strong,” and lose all that respect because you’re gay, or be respected only despite being black, Hispanic, or Asian, or be excluded and ridiculed for not being one of the boys. At the same time, Jenner does have privilege, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, because she is privileged, Jenner has the resources with which to fight, and, it must be noted, for a group of people deemed and treated as the lowest of the low, including in the gay community. Privilege buys (some) power (in some contexts), and it is the use to which power is put that is to be judged, not privilege by itself.

In fact, Jenner’s performance of the ex-“American hero” now identifying as and standing up for gender outcasts—already ironic—ironically makes him more critical than the mainstream LGBTQ movement. After all, the current thrust of the gay mainstream is heavily weighted toward marriage and the “proper” “type” of gay, undoubtedly a compelling factor leading to its recent victories, its acceptance in the mainstream. The price of this has been the disavowal of the less proper type of queers, notably trans, despite the fact that it was trans activists in Stonewall that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ movement. Similarly, of course ESPN has a vested commercial interest in presenting Jenner the award and that such presentation involves her commodification, but why single out a transgender woman, and not the other athletes, heteronormative or not, as the object of televised exploitation? And so what if Jenner is commodified as she is publicly recognized? Does commodification necessarily blunt the critical force of her public performance? In fact, doesn’t commodification, given its speed, its shock or seduction value, its mass dissemination, propel Jenner’s performance? In a world where capitalism attempts to penetrate virtually everything, does pointing out that something is entangled really amount to a critique? More importantly, does entanglement necessarily foreclose critique of that to which one is entangled and, it must not be forgotten, of the other operative axes of power that may or may not be aligned with capitalism, say, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and patriotism?

These attempts, ostensibly well-meaning, to dismiss or minimize the significance of Caitlyn Jenner miss something crucial about her. Criticisms from the right make up a reactionary backlash (what else is new?) against the way in which Caitlyn has deconstructed the American hero, proving him not only to be unknown (as expressed by Caitlyn’s constant remark, “Before this, nobody really knew me”), perhaps unknowable, because hollow—a mere ideal, a fantasy—but, indeed, as the opposite of what he’s thought to be, i.e. as deviant, wretched, monstrous, as someone undesirable and unworthy of admiration, at least not in the conventional sense, in other words, as queer. These reactionary criticisms, in other words, root from a nostalgia for something that’s not there but is believed in, an anchor of identity that Bruce used to be, but which Caitlyn has shattered. Whereas these nostalgic criticisms do everything they can to erase what Caitlyn has revealed, more sympathetic criticisms, including those coming from the fellow oppressed, miss what it was that Caitlyn showed the world. For in courageously standing up there to flamboyantly parade her gender for all the world to see, what Caitlyn Jenner has showed, in these times of enduring racial persecution, unending economic recession, and the institutionalization of gay marriage, is the centrality of sexuality itself, not against but along with other axes of struggle.

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