Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writing Ambivalence

Real life is complicated, messy. In any given piece of writing, however, it is much easier to give the opposite impression than to do justice to that reality. Partly that is because words are finite while reality is not, so simplification is inevitable. Partly it is because cultural expectations for most kinds of text include a kind of cohesion and assumed wholeness that may be aesthetically satisfying but that is far tidier than the real world. There's probably something in there that has to do with the capitalist pressure to evaluate everything in very utilitarian ways, though I don't feel compelled to explore that angle at the moment.

I've been thinking about all of this over the past week -- at least, I have in the few corners of time left to me between meeting a deadline, dealing with a sick four year-old, and frantically trying to keep up with my paid employment commitments. The reason is that last Sunday a book was published that contains a piece by yours truly. In line with the observations above, books most often appear to be self-contained, complete, definitive, built out of individual pieces that are themselves self-contained and complete, if not quite so definitive. Most often, this is a distortion at best, a dishonesty at worst. I feel compelled to talk about the ways in which this book as a whole and my piece specifically feel messy, situated, and troubling to me.

The book is called Nothing But Red (buy it here, learn more about it here). It was inspired by an online rant by pop culture phenomenon and Buffy creator Joss Whedon in response to an "honour killing" in South Asia that received big press in North America, and in response to a Hollywood film that reached new heights of misogynistic violence. I submitted to it because (a) I was looking for something not bloggy and not worky to submit to last summer; (b) my other writing commitments meant I was already immersed in relevant sources at the time; (c) I thought it would be cool to have writing in a project that was somehow Joss-related, given that I like his work; and, (d) I suspected that submissions with a critical focus might be rather thin on the ground, and I thought I could write one. The project is mostly fiction and poetry, with a little bit of art. My essay is one of the few pieces of non-fiction.

I have an e-version of the final book and will obtain a print version. I have not read it thoroughly but I have read bits and pieces. I really appreciate the combination of DIY-ness and professionalism in the project -- it happened because a few people were determined to make it happen, though most of the contributors seem to be quite experienced writers. It contains some excellent writing that comments very powerfully on gendered violence, and for some authors at least that obviously comes from a place of resistance to oppression that they experience. The messy part is that it appears to be mainly white North Americans responding both directly and indirectly to violence experienced by a racialized woman in a non-Western country, and in the collection gender is foregrounded while race, nation, capitalism, empire, and colonialism remain largely unexamined. One moment from the rich and varied experiences of women in South Asia is used as the focus to which writers have responded. Though any moment can be a suitable place to begin an exploration of all social relations, the combination of the silence on these oppressive relations with this book's particular starting point lead in regretfully predictable directions. Even while it contains some great writing and some powerful pieces about gendered violence in various contexts, the collection as a whole is consistent with and implicitly reinforces some really troubling narratives about race and nation that pervade Western cultures. At least a couple of the specific pieces merit considerably sharper and more critical evaluation than that, too.

It looks neat, complete, definitive. I hope it is not read that way.

My essay, "Traps In Our Outrage," raises some of these issues, though I kind of wish now I'd made it more clear and more directly challenging. I'm glad it is in there, to provide a critical perspective that might otherwise be absent. But I am still uncomfortable.

I also have some mixed feelings about my essay itself for other reasons. I wasn't conscious of this while writing it, but in retrospect it is clear that this was a first attempt by me to take some ideas I've learned about political responsibility in an anti-oppression framework, as well as some ideas I've learned about how the social world is put together, and find new ways to communicate these that are more accessible and engaging than the academic forms in which I have encountered them. I think that is a worthwhile project and I think the steps I made in writing this essay were important ones, and I hope to build on them in the future. But I find that I often feel that work that is destined for the printed page has to feel complete in some absolute sense, in contrast to blog writing which is expected to have ragged edges and to feel perpetually in progress..."Traps in our Outrage" feels to me like it still a few ragged edges, and that it will take more experimentation on my part to take the project that it begins to where I want it to go. On the other hand, perhaps this response on my part is an expression of still not quite having shaken unrealistic expectations of what books really are.

The final bit of ambivalence that I've been processing is the ambivalence I feel about writing this post. It isn't the sort of unreserved cheerleading probably expected of contributors to a collaborative project like this, and I hope it isn't seen as ingratitude for the opportunity or disrespect for the hard work of others, for the good pieces the volume contains, or for the seriousness of the issue. In fact, it is precisely respect for the gravity of these issues that has compelled me to express my political misgivings in this way.

Neat pages, crisp text, unblemished spine -- these are almost always dishonest, though I delight in them still.

So by all means buy Nothing But Red, and read it. But please read it critically. Read it as if it were a messy, situated, contradictory, troubling text. Because, really, that's what all books are.


Anonymous said...

I'm a fellow contributor to the anthology. I have worked with dishonor killings in the Middle East for years, and I don't hold a culturally/morally relativist view of these crimes. I think they are violations of basic, universal human rights, and it was somehow very heartening for me to return from the region and learn that people throughout the world actually give a hoot about Du'a's death. I don't think (and this is my studied view as a subject-matter expert) dishonor killings are going to go away without some international outrage, pressure, and enforcement of human rights agreements and covenants signed with the international community. Jordan, for example, is in violation of about 17 of them, just on the dishonor killings issue alone.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

Scott said...

Hi Ellen.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting! It's always a little weird to have one's words side by side with those of so many other people, most of whom seem fascinating and talented but all of whom are strangers, so it's nice to have this chance to interact a little bit.

And in terms of your argument, I agree that misogynistic violence must be met with outrage and with action. As must racist violence, colonial and imperial violence, the violence of capital, heterosexist violence, and so on. The question is, what action?

One factor that must be considered in answering this question is the already-existing, socially organized relationship between the person or people taking action and the person or people whose experiences sparked the outrage. Lots of activists, especially radical women of colour, have written about how the impulse to "help" in the context of pre-existing oppressive relationships can result in reproducing those oppressive relationships. The politics of any action must be responsive to that insight.

The other thing that has to be considered is the totality of violence shaping the lives of, for example, working-class women in South Asia or West Asia. A lot of that violence -- in particular the structural violence of the global economy, the legacy of colonialism, the role of Western states in propping up corrupt and oppressive regimes and overthrowing democratic regimes, and other things -- is something that we in the West are very directly complicit in. That, in turn, has an impact on what our political responsibilities are in working in solidarity with women in South and West Asia.

I do not understand my position to be "culturally" or "morally relativist" either...a shallow, racist understanding of difference that falls into that mould is one of a long list of things that leads our mainstream institutions here in North America to be even more lax in responding to violence again racialized women than they are in responding to violence against white fact, often not just "more lax" but "actively complicit." That sort of relativism, which foregrounds an understanding of difference that essentializes culture and erases relations of power along lines of race and class and gender, must be avoided at all costs. However, the alternative to that should not be ignoring relations of power by completely ignoring how they organize what we understand as "difference," which is a common liberal response to the issue. Rather, we have to understand those relations of power in all of their complexity, and begin to act from a sound understanding of our already-existing place in social relations. We must respond to the people with whom we wish to have solidarity as whole people who have agency and are probably already engaged in struggle.

As I hope I conveyed in this post, I think there is lots of good material in the collection. However, there is also material that could lead those of us in North America to fail to see our own complicity in the violence shaping the lives of South and West Asian women, and therefore lead to responses to that violence that are unhelpful or even actively oppressive.