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An interesting question…

My Spanish class, in the interest of tracing Spanish modernity into the now (or close enough), watched Todo sobre mi madre. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a wonderful film, and I love Almodóvar. But that is not where I’m going with this (although maybe I will make a post later about such things!)

Instead, we had the following interesting exchange in class:

Girl: But, I don’t understand how he could have gotten the nun pregnant while dressed as a woman.

Professor: (after a classroom-wide pause) Well, how one’s dressed is probably the least important thing when one’s having sex.

Now, I think it’s probable that, as we were talking in Spanish, she simply lacked the words to say what she actually wanted to say. On the other hand, such a literalist interpretation of performativity is certainly something I’ve never thought of before (at least as-relates to the actual physical world, rather than to fictional narratives).

(And I asked the professor later; apparently there is no word for ‘performativity’ in Spanish that isn’t considered a barbarous Anglicism, and he was criticised for trying to create one in an article he wrote. Languages are definitely tricky but fascinating.)

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Literary Abuse

Sometimes, a little bit of education can be a bad thing, or so they say. There are times when I just have to agree. While flipping over a few pages in the HP Lexicon (to settle a dispute), I found this choice piece of literary criticism:

Lucius was the name of a Roman emperor who fought against King Arthur in legend. Interesting, considering that Lucius Malfoy and Arthur Weasley are bitter enemies and have even come to blows. It is also interesting that King Arthur killed Emperor Lucius with a blow to the head with Excalibur. In the scuffle in Flourish and Blotts, Arthur knocked Lucius into a bookshelf and Lucius was hit in the head by an Encyclopedia of Toadstools (cf: OffsiteLe Morte d’Arthur V : VIII).

I am half offended on behalf of Malory, here. Perhaps, perhaps, we may give JK Rowling the benefit of the doubt as far as the names go. She did, after all, put a great deal of effort into them. But to suggest that Lucius being hit on the head with an encyclopaedia of toadstools is somehow an allusion to King Arthur defeating Rome with a legendary sword… well, that’s a step too far. Sure, if it had been ‘The Fall of Rome’ or something vaguely related that fell on his head, maybe we could talk. That it was the ‘Encyclopedia of Toadstools’ means trying to make that connection is just silly.

Luckily, my dispute about Lucius Malfoy was settled. I’d hate to have to trawl through more of this site and see what else they’ve been claiming!

Right to self-determination

Liz Carr has written an ‘open letter‘ to Noel Martin, a neo-Nazi attack victim, regarding his decision to commit assisted suicide following being paralysed by his attackers.

In the past month or so, thanks to the US election, abortion and gay rights have come to the fore of public consciousness, and frankly, this is yet another instance of people’s attack on a right to govern one’s self.

Carr tries to tell Mr Martin several things:

1) that he has wonderful memories of life before his attack/before his wife died (of cancer a few years after his being attacked), which should sustain him

2) that he is now an inspiring figure in the fight against neo-Nazism

3) that there are plenty of places where disabled people can visit beaches and see the world

4) that he has been erroneously convinced by the media that as a disabled person, he is a second-class citizen and should want to die.

I find these points rather insulting and insensitive coming from anyone, even another disabled person. (Carr’s disability is the result of an illness at age 7, not a brutal attack as an adult, so immediately she is in a different situation to Martin.) She essentially tells the man that he hasn’t been making enough of his life; that he should live his life to be an inspiration to others; that he has foolishly allowed himself to be convinced by the media that he should want to die.

She met Martin for half an hour, and this is her basis for writing such a patronising and public response to his choice. It is a choice, he has a right to it, and she is not respecting it. Instead, she seems to be trying to force Martin to approach his disability in the same way that she has, the way that she declares is the right way.

She makes a very interesting claim that shows a total lack of compassion towards Martin:

“Until the day when good quality health and social care are universally available regardless of age, impairment, race, gender or location, I believe there is no place for legalised assisted suicide.”

This seems to say that Martin must continue living as he does—and he wouldn’t have made this choice if he wasn’t convinced this was not a way worth living—to put pressure on the government and society to repair all inequality.

Carr should respect this man’s choice. Although Martin will be making a trip to Switzerland to end his life, I fully support a (regulated and overseen) legalised euthanasia system in the UK. Carr’s behaviour shows that these rights are opposed not simply by people ignorant of the situation terminally ill and crippled people live in. Frankly, Carr is opposing ill and disabled people’s rights just as much as people who discriminate against them. Martin deserves the right to take control of his own life and body, and no one, particularly not Carr, should not be able to stand in his way.

Philosophy on film

That is essentially how I would characterise this film, Zeitgeist Addendum (click to watch it free on Google; 2 hours long). I would like to sit down and really pick it apart, as I might a written text, but film criticism is not my usual genre, and I’m still mulling it over.

Watching it is slightly uncanny (in the Freudian sense). Much of the information is very familiar, but it is put together and presented in a way that makes it feel very different.

I really wonder if the “banking failures [we] are seeing are just the beginning,” however. I think that the system will rescue itself. The actions that the film suggests are… well, they are all well and good, but they are also unlikely to take place and unmanageable at any rate.

I support the “use and protect the internet” suggestion, of course. I still don’t think the blogosphere has stolen power from the ‘system’, though. McCain and Obama’s campaigning on YouTube pretty much exemplifies how the ‘open-source’ sentiment of user controlled content can still be incorporated into the system.

“Literature always survives politics”…

The Head of the Nobel Prize Committee on Literature was at Harvard yesterday, and I went to hear him talk at an informal lunchtime session yesterday. We got to submit questions/topics of interest beforehand, and mine was:

“I wouldn’t mind hearing Dr. Per Wästberg speak about what he thinks the larger cultural and social influence the Nobel Prize Committees in general, but particularly the Literature Committee, can have in making its choices, and if that figures into the Literature Committee’s process or not.”

At the talk, he very kindly addressed the potentially political nature of the prize and the very political nature of some of the authors considered/awarded it. He noted that while the Committee understands that their choice may have a political effect, but they do not allow political concerns/interests to influence their decision. I personally think that that’s either said than done sometimes, particularly with the very politicised authors that they must see every year. (An example of where politics did effect the Committee might be Ezra Pound, who was refused the prize on the basis of his rather eccentric political views, but that does indeed seem to be an extraordinary case.)

He said something interesting as a throw-away remark, however: “Literature always survives politics”. Immediately, I started nodding, thinking of the many Argentinian authors, for example, who sailed close to the wind in terms of the political content of their writing (think of Neruda’s exile, for example).

But then someone else, a little later on, called him out on it. It was clear that he held the same view as I did: great writing, no matter how much it is denigrated by the contemporaneous social or political mores, will eventually gain appreciation. I adore Zola, for example, but when L’Assomoir was first published, it was considered shockingly filthy in Britain because of the very in-depth, gritty focus on the dirt and poverty of the working class life. But that someone else called it into question prodded me out of that sort of complacency. For although literature may outlive a political regime or a specific political figure, politics does affect the literary community. It not only prompts writers to greatness in the way they portray or critique a system. Politics can also silence writers (literally and metaphorically). Great writings might be buried, burnt, or simply never written, simply because political power decrees it.

If there is one thing massive political upheaval in China, Russia, France, Argentina (and many other places besides) has taught us, it is that the academic, the literary, is always one of the first spheres to be attacked by a political structure looking to cement and enforce its power. We nowadays enjoy looking back wistfully and thinking how wonderful it is that so much literature survived, critiquing and portraying those systems. But how much more literature has been lost?

La modernidad and public transport

This semester I have perhaps the most interesting Spanish class I’ve yet taken: an investigation of the history of modernity in Spain. It crosses some departmental borders—Romance languages (obviously), history, literature, and sociology—so I sometimes feel out of my depth, but the class is riveting and strikes chords with both life and my own academic work.*

In particular, today the border of public/private existence was the topic of conversation. How do we interact with strangers when forced into close proximity with them, i.e. on public transport? Are we allowed to look at them? Are we allowed to talk to them? How do we interact with them?

Personally, I’m extremely reserved in most public situations, on public transport, in the street, etc. The tacit rules of ‘don’t look, don’t touch, don’t speak’ should be firmly upheld. I’m instantly suspicious of people who wish to talk, deeply annoyed by people who seem unaware of their own personal space of mine, and, I suppose, mildly annoyed/embarrassed by people who wish to watch me. Even though they are public spaces, I feel that they are private ones too. I’m not sure entirely how that works, but the existence of the tacit rules mentioned suggests that there is a general consensus that this is the case. It’s an interesting conflict/dichotomy that, if I had more time, I’d probably like to research.

Sadly, living in the modern world also means that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do that…

* A focus of the class, naturally, is religion in/versus modernity, and el amor profano/sagrado—somehow, in English, ‘sacred/profane love’, feels like it has a different meaning—although it didn’t immediately strike me at first, seems to suggest so many fruitful links (many of which I’ll probably never have scope to explore) with my thesis work on Guinevere, adulteress-cum-nun, and chivalric love that borders on/transgresses the border into adulterous love.

Made Up

As my younger brother enters (full-flood) his teenage years, it leaves me thinking more and more about my age. In particular, this summer I spent several days with him, my father and my step-mother in Italy. Several times, I was mistaken for the young teen and he for the ‘grown-up’. Waiters in restaurants (and this is in Europe, so surely says even more than if this were to take place in England) would hesitate to give me wine. Why?

Well, the only reason I think I can give is that I, quite resolutely, never wear make-up. This is not a particularly meaningful choice. I rarely do anything more with my hair than wash it (I don’t even dry it), I don’t wear uncomfortable clothes (because surely that’s just silly?), and I just don’t have the general inclination to spend half an hour (or more) applying chemicals to my face that will starve my skin of oxygen and clog my pores. In short, then, I am really rather rubbish at being a woman.

And the waiters agree. I’m obviously a very poor actress, failing at playing the part of a woman already beginning to stride through her twenties. Am I? The notion of performativity, of constantly having to play out your identity lest people not recognise it, suggests that I am. (I still like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as my road map for this concept and would recommend it.) So I’m failing at playing out the identity of a modern woman? What do I think I’m playing at, then?

Well, I had thought I was playing at being me. Wholeheartedly, nothing but me. Not particularly interested in dressing (and dolling) myself up to attract attention, not so ugly as to be a truly shocking sight. I am twenty-one (legal to drink in almost all countries, particularly Western European ones!). I am a woman. I suspect that’s fairly obvious from looking at me. At that age, do I still need to be playing the school-girl trick of ‘if you wear enough make-up, they’ll let you in the pub’? Does society expect me to, or else it’ll be confused about who or what I am? I think Judith Butler, and many others in the field, would say ‘yes’, and so I suppose it’s about time I started making myself up again.