Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Scattered Observations on Orange Is the New Black

Surveillance of Women

The most important revelation in my blog so far has been the observation that the rise of the surveillance state, as embodied by the Prism program, has resulted in the first comprehensive, constant monitoring of women in the history of the world. The Netflix original series, Orange Is the New Black, addresses this new surveillance of women by examining it within the closed world of prison life, thereby revealing to a wide audience some troubling aspects of surveillance state capitalist patriarchy. 

Persecution of Dissidents

The inmates in OITNB who challenge the state quickly find themselves in either the psych ward or solitary confinement (i.e. "the SHU"), sometimes never reentering the general population, other times returning psychologically decimated. No justification is typically necessary and only because Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) comes from a wealthy family with access to a public forum does she avoid indefinite detention under inhumane conditions. This is a nod to the growing presence of the surveillance state persecution of dissidents, such as Glenn Greenwald, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange,* as well as the legislation and prosecutions stemming from the Green Scare. The extended detention in a London airport of Greenwald's partner, Chelsea Manning's public tarring and feathering, Julian Assange's extended exile in the Ecuadorian embassy, and the prosecution of animal rights and environmental activists as terrorists are all useful examples of the persecution of dissidents. 

Token Women

The state, embodied by men, rules the world. In OITNB the female inmates are constantly monitored by men and a few token women. The women in power within the prison system do not automatically side with the powerless inmates. Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), the warden's direct subordinate, is only interested in personal gain, as depicted in episode 12 when a journalist inquires about budgetary discrepancies as the camera zooms in on her new Mercedes. The continual failure of token women in power to automatically improve the lot of working class women should serve as a reminder that other women are not automatically feminists or allies in class struggle, something to keep in mind as the Hillary worship begins in a couple of weeks.
Although "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) appears to be a powerful woman** siding with the powerless by protecting the inmates from narcotic use, her rule against drugs allows the men to control the flow of drugs, causing addicts to deal with power hungry, inevitably underpaid and overworked guards. It also harms vulnerable transwoman, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), who experiences a stoppage of hormones through legitimate channels due to alleged budget cuts. Austerity always harms the most vulnerable populations first in surveillance state capitalist patriarchy. Red forbids the smuggling in of estrogen for Sophia--thereby forcing her to desperate measures--under a sweeping War on Drugs. And we all know how effective those are, especially for already marginalized folks.

Susan Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) is a female guard ostensibly on the side of the women inmates, perceiving them as similar to herself. She allows them to sneak out food and socialize during work hours. She tells Piper she perceives them as the same and reopens the running track. However, we will see her "power" decline and her position become precarious since Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) learned she has a boyfriend and isn't interested in him. Inevitably, when women fall out of favor with men, their lives become hellish.  

Sexual Violence

Women live under constant threat of sexual violence. The most poignant example of the constant threat of rape in OITNB is in episode 8 when George Mendez (Pablo Schreiber)  threatens to rape Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) unless she gives him information about Red's importing methods. The threat is not an explicit one, but everyone knows what he's implying. His next step won't be any fun, for her.

In an omnipotent, omniscient surveillance state, powerless women use rape as a tool of power, of manipulation, in order to control their own destinies and protect their loved ones. In episode 7, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) threatens to rape "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) if she won't leave Piper alone and kisses her against her will a couple of episodes later. Daya attempts to frame Mendez for rape to protect the baby she wants to have and her love interest, who would otherwise be blamed for the pregnancy and incarcerated as a sex offender due to the fact that inmates cannot legally give consent.  

Compulsory Heterosexuality

The structure of sexual relations between guards and inmates mirrors a Dworkinian critique of heterosexual intercourse under patriarchy as always coerced due to the imbalance of power between the sexes. This critique reflects a radical feminist perception of the inherent subordinate status of women and the corresponding impossibility of consent in heterosexual relations. Within the world of OITNB, inmates cannot legally give consent. Within capitalist patriarchy, says Dworkin and implies OITNB, women cannot genuinely give consent; they are always a lower class, occupying a subordinate position, unable to make free choices.

OITNB and the Evolution of TV

OITNB displays a structural as well as thematic rejection of consumerism. It is part of a recent tide of well-written, often beautifully produced shows structured to omit advertisements, thereby changing the narrative structure--cadence, rhythm--of TV, which has historically been designed around strategically-placed commercial breaks. This new wave recognizes the shift toward streaming-based programs and ad omission through DVR devices, and challenges the ideological status of TV as a tool of consumerism. 

OITNB's accepts existing narrative conventions while expanding and pushing the boundaries of structure and genre, including casting. The show features the first trans* person with a leading role. In Theory of the Film, Bela Balazs, writing about the development of film (and later sound in film), posited that when a new genre is emerging, for it to revolutionize art, for Art History to be made, existing forms are torn asunder. In OITNB is the evolution and perhaps the death knell of traditional television.

Part of OITNB's rejection of ads is inherent in its streaming-only format, which I predict we will see much more of in the near future, and part is in its subversion of the traditional role of TV as modeling consumerism, not only in commercials between programming segments, but also within itself in the form of product placement, the strategic appearance of products to influence viewers to desire and purchase them. The characters in OITNB wear only the barest makeup, a bit of eyeliner here, a dab of smuggled lipstick there; there is no designer clothing, not much clothing at all beyond jumpsuits; no trendsetting purses; no Spanx; and feminine pads serve as shoes. There is no place for selling in the narrative of OITNB. This is a drastic deviation from traditional TV.     

It is worth noting when a genre begins to shift and evolve, especially one as widely consumed as TV. Marxists should always be prepared to observe new developments and changes to the superstructure not only because they reflect shifts in the base, but also because a keen understanding of cultural phenomena allows us to more effectively communicate with fellow and potential anticapitalists and adapt our organizing strategies.  

*This is not an uncritical endorsement of Assange, who may or may not be a rapist.

** I would even challenge the assertion that Red was ever in an actual position of power. Within the inmate population, she indeed held some influence due to her position as head chef and her ability to withhold food and control the drug supply. However, this power was granted only at the whim of the guards and administrators. As soon as she angers them, she is quickly replaced and finds herself being starved out by the new head chef, further depicting that women's lives become wretched once they displease men/the state

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Abortion Barbie, Neutralizing Radicals, and the Gains of Excess

Typically, I don't pay much attention to the remarks and activities of partisan hacks, but the Abortion Barbie kerfuffle caught my interest. When Erick Erickson referred to Wendy Davis as "Abortion Barbie" after her 11-hour filibuster to prevent the Texas legislature from passing restrictions that would shut down most abortion clinics in the state, he insinuated that her work for reproductive rights is her primary defining trait, that beyond that particular fight she fades into anonymity with the rest of the blonde bimbos of the world. But this jab holds more significance than the usual catty partisan insult. In Erickson's comment, I perceive an accurate identification of the marginalized status of women in US politics, the commodified status of women under capital, the objectified status of women under patriarchy, and the charade of the US partisan duopoly. It is the latter on which I will primarily focus in this post. 

Abortion Barbie

On the surface, Davis's filibuster appeared to pose resistance to the Texas legislature's attempts to restrict women's access to safe and affordable abortion, but her efforts never could have been successful. Abortion Barbie was a plaything to capital, which already knew that Davis could not halt passage of the legislation. The filibuster was temporary, a plastic gesture against a system that cannot be stopped by its own processes and procedures. A system that was founded and continues to rely on the exploitation of women's reproductive systems* does not have a self-destruct button. Although thousands of protestors caused a ruckus for a while, they could not sustain their protest long enough to prevent the bill's passage.** After all, even paid organizers must return to the office at some point. And once everyone left, Governor Rick Perry simply reconvened the legislature in a special session to pass the bill. 

So why is the most visible resistance to the encroachment upon women's rights unsustainable? We make our stand, then someone pops off our head, melts us, makes us make out with Skeletor. Are we Abortion Barbie?

Neutralizing Potential Radicals

Capital conveniently seized upon Davis's highly-publicized opposition in order to propagate the Myth of Effective Liberal Resistance, which prevents the radicalization of feminists. The media indicated that the bill was successfully defeated. Although they differed in tone, liberal and conservative media alike depicted the filibuster as effective pro-choice activism. If outlets covered the second special session in which the bill was easily passed, the coverage certainly didn't garner the type of attention as the initial "successful filibuster" story.

An event that had the potential to radicalize feminists was neutralized by media coverage that suggested feminists and their magnanimous liberal lady leader had won the fight, implying that there is sufficient resistance to the encroachment upon women's rights. If liberal feminists have it under control, why risk getting involved? If Davis and thousands in Texas were successful, we don't have to build grassroots resistance to prevent further attacks on women or preempt ALEC-based legislation. Media portrayals gave the false impression that someone else is handling the problem, that there is sufficient opposition to anti-woman legislation, that there is no dire need to get involved because everything is Under Control.

The Gains of Excess

Gains are made at the point at which activism exceeds accepted and acceptable standards of procedure. Excess destabilizes the boundaries of patriarchy. Religious fundamentalists consistently attempt to expand and fortify patriarchy by challenging its (constitutionally-based and judicially-enforced) boundaries. Anti-capitalists must challenge those same boundaries in order to destabilize them and undermine patriarchy. I am not promoting constitutional lawsuits or an ALEC of the Left; I am suggesting a distinctly Leftist activism of excess.

The most effective tactics of the night were the aggressive ones that exceeded acceptable limits of Senate decorum: they were radical. When Davis's rule-abiding filibuster faltered, the establishment feminists unleashed the previously-restrained fringe, including the ISO and Occupy, resulting in the People's Filibuster and allowing liberal feminists to join in the fray without risking their seats in the Senate gallery. Views differ about who played the dirtiest, the unwashed masses of rowdy protestors or sneaky Republican legislators. In either case, the bill was not passed that night, but was passed shortly thereafter with little hassle for the self-righteous Christians in charge, as Democrats registered voters outside

As they historically do, liberals claimed credit for an anti-capitalist victory while missing an opportunity for sustained resistance. The radicals had served their purpose--to sustain the Myth of Effective Liberal Resistance--and were sent on their way. The Democrats maintained their base without moving to the Left, as usual. The two-party duopoly and accompanying fallacy that Democrats pose effective resistance to patriarchy and capitalism was perpetuated. 

While Davis champions reproductive rights, she also undoubtedly supports the broader Democratic platform--including drone strikes, imperialist expansion, and small business fetishization--which harms women around the world. Until the feminism Davis symbolizes consistently includes a radicalism that defends all women from the poisonous grip of capitalist patriarchy, it is doomed to be Abortion Barbie: a stilted performance of something important, a dead-eyed ideology that preserves the anti-woman agenda that it ostensibly opposes. 

I used to be convinced that being a pro-choice liberal was better than being an anti-choice anything for the overall destabilization of capital and patriarchy. Now I recognize that plastic stances I once thought teetered on the edge of frivolity as Barbie teeters on her impossibly-pointed toes diminish the radical politics necessary to overthrow capitalist patriarchy. It's not better to be Abortion Barbie than a tin soldier: one must become the toymaker.
If we fight legislative battles by the rules of the establishment and only become temporarily radicalized once all other options are exhausted, then we are Abortion Barbie. In order to pose sustained resistance to patriarchal backlash against reproductive rights, our activism must be excessive. We must be radical at all times, in any given circumstance, and actively refuse to be lulled into a sense of passivity by media messages that a feisty Abortion Barbie is somewhere defending our right to safe, affordable abortion.

*Especially women of color. Additionally, it is built on the exploitation of female non-human animals' reproductive systems. 
 ** The crowd gathered around the filibuster itself, in real time, was positive. There is value in the mobilization of thousands of activists: to raise awareness of women's rights, to foster class unity, to practice mass organizing, to empower folks, to recruit comrades to fight against capital. These on-the-ground benefits aside, remote impact was negative. I deeply appreciate everyone who hit the streets. My point is the futility of two-party politics in the US today, and the damage these politics do to radical organizing. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How to Disappoint Kathi Weeks

Kathi Weeks's The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011) is a well-written, insightful text that caused me to critically examine my position on productivity and the Protestant (and laborist) work ethic; it provoked me--just as Weeks intends--into reflecting on and questioning my own post-capitalism vision. Never had it occurred to me that there would come a day after the fall of capitalism during which we could simply not work. Don't mistake me: I understand the refusal of work as a political strategy under capital to display the power of the working class,* but I had always conceived these displays as having the end goal of less or better work, not no work

Weeks accurately highlights that Marxian post-capitalism is heavy on pull-your-own weight rhetoric, even though I suspect one would be substantially less alienated from that weight under socialism than one is under capitalism. Although I would likely gain great personal satisfaction from a full rejection of the Protestant work ethic, I'm not prepared to entirely disavow the necessity of work, as a practice or as a concept. The concept of "work" allows us to appeal to a wide swath of the population, a swath that takes great pride in its work ethic, whether as the long-suffering earthly worker awaiting that heavenly reward or as the blue collar laborer who pulled him/herself up by the bootstraps. In other words, organizing around the axiom of "work" allows a wide sampling of individuals to relate to our struggle for control of the means of production, for only when we control those can we begin to truly allocate work equitably, resulting in far less and better work for all.

The value of Weeks's text as an effective challenge to one's worldview aside, upon finishing it, I had the distinct feeling that someone with an illogical vested interest in me had been deeply disappointed: I felt as though I had just visited my father. Weeks chastises the reader for failing to imagine a  satisfactory post-work, post-capitalism future. When her admonishments are not quite adequate, she invokes Jameson to further chide us (212). Weeks reminds us--as the reader reaches an unprecedented level of self-loathing for our utter failure to envision a proper post-capitalism utopia--that it is much more important that we imagine than what we imagine (207).

Despite her condescending tone, Weeks's point is well taken: Marxists have not been imaginative enough, and we should spend more time thinking about the potential of a post-work world, not limiting ourselves to imagining one that involves different, better or less work. After all, I frequently daydream about winning the lottery, and the starting point for those musings is always quitting my job. Admittedly, my post-work fantasy isn't very exciting: beach house on the West Coast, condo in Caracas, apartment in Paris, travel to Laos with the Wolfe, buying off a bunch of folks' student debt via Rolling Jubilee. Yawn.

Kathi Weeks is right: my revolution and my socialism involve work. But not some uncritical, blindly accepted glorification of work, but necessary drudgery based on material conditions. Who will do the cleaning? Robots can only do so much. Maybe we should all become slobs and shake off the shackles of bourgeois notions of cleanliness. After all, we undeniably clean and groom more than is necessary for health and hygiene, some of us shouldering more of the burden than others. It is interesting to watch even the brightest men make arguments about creased slacks and ironed collars, but can I speak for everyone I know? Of course we won't be ironing under socialism. But the tubs will still need scrubbing. Sure, if someone devises a better way to take out the trash, re-shelve the books, unload the dishwasher, de-ice the streets, and weed the garden, I'll take it. In the meantime, there is much work to be done to overthrow capitalism, as well as to install a society based on full equality. Let's get busy.

*Which on BAMF always includes domestic laborers

Friday, July 19, 2013

On Left Unity

A guest post by John Wolfe. 

One of the most fraught topics on the Marxist left is the ideal of “left unity.” We have all heard it called for more than once, and most hope for it in some form or other. However, it again and again fails to materialize. The factionalism of the left remains fodder for bitter jokes within and amusement from without. Further, we all know whose fault it is—those other people. “Sectarian,” like “hipster,” is a label that is never self-applied. This problem is so endemic it is worth analyzing in some detail, and here I will take a feeble stab at beginning such an analysis.

Once, in the not-so-distant past, there was a country known as the USSR heading up a block of nations experimenting with socialism in one form or another. Sometimes, as with much of what went on in the Twentieth Century, it is hard to believe that this actually happened, that a worker's revolution ushered in a situation where half the world was busily engaged in trying to build an alternative to capitalism. These experiments had mixed results to be sure, but at least they were happening, and happening on a grand scale. 

When the USSR existed, one's choice of party was truly significant. To join an official communist party was to literally ally oneself with Moscow and follow their dictates. It was to take a definite side in a war that was far from cold. Even as Eurocommunism and like developments made this relationship slightly more distant, the connection with Moscow remained essential. To join a Trotskyist party, on the other hand, was to take a stand against the USSR, to join a conspiracy to either undermine or radically transform (depending on how one looks at it) the state socialist counties. To join one of the “Marxist-Leninist” parties that blossomed in the US In the Seventies was to side with neither Moscow nor its would-be saviors, but rather to side with a China that was still recognizably anti-capitalist.

In Republic of Silence Sartre famously states that “We were never more free than under the German occupation.” This superficially odd statement simply indicates that substantial freedom requires that one's choices be recognized as meaningful, that they have real consequences. Under Nazi occupation the choice to support the resistance or become a collaborator carried with it life or death consequences for oneself, one's family, and one's associates. This is the ultimate validation of political activity.

Before 1991, a leftist's choice of party had such significance. It represented a substantive commitment to one or another international movement and, in many times and places, carried with it a real risk of imprisonment, death, loss of employment, or any number of bad consequences. Things were very real indeed.

The situation now, twenty some years after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, is unrecognizable by comparison. Despite the recent popular insurrections throughout Europe, despite the continued existence of many, largely stalled, guerrilla movements, and despite even the stunningly vibrant and heartening activities of the Bolivarians, a harsh neoliberal capitalism reigns throughout the world. The power of labor is in retreat, and what victories we win are largely Pyrrhic. In this situation, our activities and theoretical positions have been robbed of consequences and significance. These days, a communist can't even get arrested.

In this depressing situation, in developed nations like the US, leftism becomes more of a lifestyle than anything else. It is a posture one adopts, of little more meaning than becoming a goth, listening to dubstep, or shopping at Whole Foods. Despite one's best intentions, choosing a side in sectarian debate becomes little more than a way of carving out a personal identity. For, let's face it, whatever your opinion on the NEP, the particular historical situation that gave rise to it is not going to repeat itself, and nothing remotely like that situation will arise, until we are well into a revolutionary process. Until then, all activists on the Marxist left are engaged in nearly identical objectively reformist issue advocacy and labor organization efforts.

At this point, sectarian “enemies” come to the rescue. They keep the left alive by convincing its members that their choices are significant. Without that vocal sectarian opponent attacking everything you hold dear, you would have to face the harsh fact that no one gives a damn what you think of the Kronstadt rebellion, and frankly that it does not matter. However, deep down, we need that—and this is the problem. Just as Marcuse observed that modern society sustains itself by creating false needs, I would maintain the left sustains itself by creating false disputes. We need a way forward that minimizes this. I hope we can find this way, but all I have seen so far indicates that that this hope has little foundation.

Sectarian disputes then are both a pernicious phenomenon self-cannabalizing the left and stunting its effectiveness and a vital means by which the left sustains itself and avoids absorption into liberalism. We cannot hope to overcome petty squabbling until such time as we begin to score real victories. Until then, the best solution is to realize that there is little harm in embracing a diversity of tactics, gritting our teeth, and enduring the unstable mutually-sustaining antagonism we now have.

Friday, July 5, 2013

LGBT Pride, Gay Marriage, and the Reproduction of the Center

Pride is a magical time of year when progressive organizations unite to celebrate diversity and demand full equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters. I intended to make this post a carefree field report about the parade and festival including colorful pictures of topless gay guys and elegant drag queens, with a dash of commentary on the revolutionary potential of the LGBT community. I would have playfully mocked my Trotskyist comrades for hawking newspapers and my liberal feminist friends for their petitions.

This year promised to be an especially jubilant event due to the Supreme Court's rulings last week declaring DOMA unconstitutional and destabilizing California's Proposition 8. Finally, gays and lesbians can get married! At least, the federal government can't stop them, although Michigan and Virginia might try. But, alas, that was not meant to be. 

As Mercy for Animals was summoned by event staff to join the parade, a torrential downpour ensued. Anyone who has spent substantial time in Florida is aware that downpours of this kind typically last 10-20 minutes, then the relentless sun reclaims his throne and a rainbow or two emerges. This was not the case last Saturday. The gutters overflowed with glitter, feathers, and false eyelashes. Disgruntled drag queens must have been pouting into consolatory cocktails in bars all down Central Avenue

Even once we had distributed 2,000 anti-cruelty leaflets over the course of two hours while wading through ankle-deep puddles, even once the Wolfe and I were downtown at a vegetarian bistro, even once we relocated to the best build-your-own-Bloody-Mary bar in the Bay Area, even three bars into our hopping, the rain persisted. No pictures were taken; my camera (i.e. phone) spent the day in various more prepared folks' backpacks. So much for a lighthearted rundown of a glorious celebration of diversity. Back to standard ranting...

Now for clarification. For those who don't know me personally, my activism functions on the hypothesis that progressive social advancements help make capitalism more tolerable until we overthrow it. I have fought for marriage equality alongside activists of all stripes despite suspicions that marriage is a fundamentally bourgeois institution that fortifies capitalist patriarchy. My instinct is to promote the abolition of marriage due to its misogynistic history and failure to subvert normative bourgeois family structures in favor of something similar to Utah's Common Ground Initiative, which is far more inclusive of radical types of kinship bonds, communities, and non-conjugal relationships. However, none of this has deterred me from participating in activism to support others who perceive marriage equality as the struggle of our time. Mainstream LGBT organizations' focus on marriage as a fundamental human right has paid off with the recent SCOTUS rulings, so who am I to begrudge so many individuals a legitimate reason to celebrate?* All power to those fighting for equality: you know how to reach me to participate in direct action and demonstrations. 

With that said, inclusion of LGBT couples in the institution of marriage does not weaken but strengthens it. Legalization of gay marriage at the federal level preserves cultural hegemony by strategically including an element that is widely perceived as radical. This strategic inclusion of marginal elements occurs throughout the superstructure, from token women in powerful government positions to the one black friend in sitcoms.** By periodically including ostensibly heterogeneous elements in the socially-accepted norm, the norm is stabilized.

In "Explanation and Culture: Marginalia," (In Other Worlds,*** 1987)--a playful and incisive essay--Gayatri Spivak, drawing on Adrienne Rich, argues that to maintain its dominance the (white, bourgeois, heterosexual, male) center strategically includes (of color, working class, LGBT, female) marginalized cultural elements, stating "The putative center welcomes selective inhabitants of the margin in order better to exclude the margin" (145). She uses her own participation in an academic conference and her position in academia as examples. She is a woman of Indian descent, while her peers were white Anglo-Saxon men, the traditional demography of the academy. She challenges their "masculist centralism" in several spirited confrontations, which they condemn as "unfair." (Did I mention that this is a really fun read? What else is to be expected from a disciple of Derrida?) 

The state has historically encouraged women to marry in order to rely financially on men and thereby lessen reliance on the state. When women began obtaining higher education levels and pursuing careers, marriage rates plummeted. Individuals are waiting longer to marry, and alternate types of kinship provide alternatives to marriage. Plummeting marriage rates threaten the very institution of marriage, which is a key element of capitalist patriarchy. In order to sustain that dying and outdated institution, the center has included its margins, LGBT couples, to sustain and reproduce itself. 

Prior to this SCOTUS ruling, LGBT civil unions were excluded from federal benefits and protections, placing them squarely in the margins of the bourgeois institution of marriage, notion of love, and nuclear family. However, these relationships are not inherently radical or heterogeneous. This is not to say that LGBT couples are not stigmatized or oppressed; they are. And homosexuality might be radical under certain historical conditions, but monogamous gay marriage mimics the bourgeois nuclear family. The sexual orientation of those in normative relationships does not automatically radicalize those relationships or the individuals in them.

Spivak claims that marginal elements allowed into the center must behave in an certain manner in order to be tolerated (149). LGBT folks can only be tolerated if they behave in a specific way, in this case by conforming to bourgeois notions of love and family, for which marriage is the official cultural explanation. She notes, "The strongest brand of centralization is to allow in only the terms that would be consistent anyway" (155). Gay marriage functions similarly enough to heterosexual marriage that is does not disrupt the "consistency loop" required to sustain and reproduce the center. The center can "risk" embracing these previously marginal elements because they pose no threat to its dominance. In fact, the center must admit certain marginal elements to sustain and reproduce itself.

She goes on to claim that the margin can never be erased, only tamed to "exclude the possibility of the radically heterogenous" (143). By including the LGBT community in the institution of marriage, the "radically heterogeneous" elements--expressions of love and family that offer alternatives to marriage--are relegated to the margins and the center is stabilized, sustained, and reproduced.

While some see the federal recognition of gay marriage as a momentous leap forward for individual rights and equality, and they might be correct, it is (also?) a strategic move by capitalist patriarchy to exclude radical communities from official cultural explanations of love and family. Radical communities still exist--the margin is irreducible--but BDSM adherents, polygymous arrangements, unmarried partnerships, multi-generational households, single-parent families, intentional communities, and other alternate kinship models are excluded from and marginalized by current official cultural explanations,**** keeping the center firmly intact. Let us congratulate our comrades whose relationships are now recognized by the state but never uncritically accept such recognition and its implications.

*Disclaimer: I reserve the right to criticize any and all bourgeois institutions at any time.
** pp. 101-114
*** The essay is on pages 139-160 in my edition. 
**** Spivak notes that the lines between margin and center are ever changing and constantly negotiated, so currently marginalized elements might eventually be incorporated into the center under different material conditions. Predicting the future does not seem helpful here, only recognition that the location of the boundaries between center and margin are impermanent.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Green Scare, Prism, and the Rise of the Surveillance of Women

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?       
  And how should I presume?
--TS Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock
For most of the history of US domestic surveillance, efforts have been focused on those who seek to undermine hegemonic power, particularly communists, socialists, black nationalists, civil rights activists, union organizers, peace activists, political opponents of the reigning administration, and, to a predictably lesser extent, white hate groups. Of 92 total confirmed targets of COINTELPRO, 31 were organizations, 44 were men, and 17 were women. Of the 31 organizations, only one was explicitly dedicated to advancing women's rights. Considering that sexism is alive and well in the left even today, it was certainly exponentially more pervasive before Roe v. Wade and Title IX. Women who belonged to the 31 organizations monitored by COINTELPRO were relegated to subordinate roles; the leaders, officers, and most influential contributors were men. Consequently, men were the primary targets of COINTELPRO and its predecessors, and, I posit, its antecendents until roughly 2001, which ushered in the rise of the surveillance of women. 

The Green Scare

Between 2001 and 2006, the FBI improperly monitored several groups, including PETA and Greenpeace, as part of the Green Scare, a propaganda program that includes the labeling and prosecution of activists as terrorists. In animal rights and environmental activism, women occupy prominent positions and have achieved a gender equity previously unrealized in other social justice movements.(1)(2) Women are twice as likely as men to support animal rights and tend to be more sympathetic than men to environmental causes. As suppression of green activists became a state priority, an unprecedented number of women became targets of state surveillance. However, targeted surveillance of female green activists is only one aspect of the increased surveillance of women since 2001.
Thanks to radicalrationale.wordpress.com for designing the logo and to those who suggested that I have one. Now to discover whether or not it acts as a thumbnail when the blog is shared...


Because women have historically been and still are largely locked out of official positions of power, our communication has been considered to consist of idle gossip and old wives' tales. Until recently, the communication of women has been dismissed as inconsequential; we have worn a metaphorical veil that has allowed us to remain invisible to the surveillance gaze. With the Green Scare and the implementation of the all-encompassing Prism program, for the first time in history female communication has been deemed worthy of state surveillance.(3) The surveillance gaze has determined it is interested in our previously disregarded communication; it has stripped the veil from us.

Invisibility and Subversion

In Algeria Unveiled, Frantz Fanon conceived the veil as a revolutionary tool that allowed women to use invisibility as a weapon of resistance within the Casbah during the Algerian War. When Algerian women wore the veil, they were invisible to the French colonizers, who resented their absence from the otherwise omniscient colonizing gaze. Algerian women became the focus of campaigns by the French to impose on them cultural hegemony, including (unveiled) women as objects of male observation. The concerted efforts of the French colonizers to unveil Algerian women serves as an apt metaphor for the ripping away of the veil that prior to 2001 protected women's communication from state surveillance.(4)

The US government, in its secret interpretation and application of the Patriot Act, is acting as a colonizing force upon the entirety of human communication. The hegemonic gaze seeks out individual subversives, as well as organized efforts to undermine the dominant power structure. Historically, women's participation in resistance has been minimized. However, the recent ascent of women within the animal rights and environmentalism movements has transformed us into dangerously veiled unknowables who must be exposed to the surveillance gaze in order to be catalogued and controlled. The implementation of the Prism program rends the veil from the communication of women, ostensibly neutralizing our potential threat to the dominant capitalist power structure.

We are controlled and coerced by this new pervasive surveillance, as we meticulously ensure our actions on behalf of animals, the environment, and other social justice causes could in no way be construed as threatening to the capitalist state. Because we are being watched, we go to great lengths not to raise any red flags, thereby distracting us and possibly weakening our revolutionary potential. This is a risk we cannot take. We must resist the urge to cease or constrain our organizing and social justice work. Comrades must download and properly use TOR, communicate with other organizers and activists in person or through anonymous email accounts and servers, and consistently practice Security Culture

Fanon also notes the duality of the revolutionary potential of the veil. Not only was it an invisibility cloak of sorts within the Casbah, but it was also something that could be shed to allow Algerian women to appear sympathetic and nonthreatening to colonizing forces and, therefore, to complete subversive tasks undetected within European cities after 1955 (174-7). We must transform the loss of the veil over women's communication into a revolutionary tool that allows us to effectively maneuver the channels of capitalist patriarchy. Programs such as the Green Scare and Prism make it clear that the state perceives us as threats to its power. Let us prove it right.

(1) The recent allegations of transphobia in Deep Green Resistance is beyond the scope of this post although I am open to addressing it in future.
(2) Perhaps with the exception of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. 
(3) There have been a few exceptions to this, consisting of social justice activists. One prominent example is Assata Shakur, the first woman to make the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, whose communications were undoubtedly monitored before her expatriation. Bernadine Dohrn has been a target of government surveillance for most of her life as well. 
(4) The reasons given by the French colonizers for wishing to impose European culture on the Algerians resemble the justifications of the Obama administration and the NSA for the Prism program: this is for our own protection, our own good. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA

Our first guest post, by John Wolfe.

The recent leak of NSA documents by Edward Snowden has confirmed what nearly everyone has long suspected about the extent of the surveillance conducted by the U.S. Government. The public reaction has been predictable. On the one hand, many are outraged. This outrage is interesting in itself. It cuts across the nominal political affiliations dividing society, uniting libertarians and leftists, as well as significant fractions of mainline Democrats and Republicans. On the other hand, supporters of the current administration have deployed rhetoric which, although it for the most part falls short of outright defending NSA activities, seeks to minimize the importance of the leak. A rather unsystematic and impressionistic survey of internet chatter about the case reveals two main strategies of minimization. One is the pose of the jaded cynic. Those who are upset by the contents of the leaked information will be told that everyone has already known about this for years, and asked why they are so upset now. This is uninteresting, and ignores the distinction between well-founded suspicion and undeniable confirmation. The second strategy is to ask what the difference is between the recently revealed government data mining, and the corporate surveillance we have all endured for years. After all, we have become accustomed to, if not exactly comfortable with, extremely elaborate and invasive data collection and synthesis from the likes of Facebook, Google, and even our local supermarkets for years now. What does it matter if the government gets in on this game? This objection, unlike the first, deserves some examination.

It is certainly true that we have been always been surveilled by internet providers, marketing departments and others well into the past. However, I would argue that something markedly different is going on here. What we have is nearly complete, real time, identifiable data on everyone. It was disturbing enough to know that this data was collected and utilized by various corporations. But this kind of polycentric surveillance is different from having all of this data funneled into one central authority, an authority controlled by the entity that deploys the more violent forms of power in our society.

To restate the above in a slightly different way, there is a qualitative difference between being surveilled by a thousand petty authorities, often acting at cross-purposes, and having one major authority collect nearly all of this data. The very centralization is significant in its own right. However, the petty authorities and the central authority have different agendas. As pernicious as corporate surveillance was and is, it really was not about us. What Wal-Mart and CVS wanted to accomplish was selling more of their products and the data collected on individuals was merely instrumental. What Google and Facebook want is to increase their profits, and they want to hawk the data the collect to people who want to sell more things in order to do this. Their activities are merely avaricious, not malicious. What the NSA and its associated agencies want to accomplish is about us. They are policing the general population. Gathering as much data on individuals as possible is itself the purpose. 

It is sometimes additionally said by liberal defenders of these programs that since we are just dealing with surveillance, rather than grosser “rights violations” there is little to worry about. Observation is not control. However, this is a na├»ve view. We have known better for years. One of the central insights of Foucault's work, particularly Discipline and Punish, is that observation itself functions as a system of control. Under surveillance of any sort people are understood, and come to understand themselves, not as agents but as sites for the generation of data. Under this self-understanding people come to internalize the surveillance, deploy it against themselves. More simply, if one knows that they are always under observation, they will alter their behavior accordingly. Now if this kind of surveillance is a form of control, then to call these NSA programs "totalitarian" is not the least bit hysterical—it is to pay attention to the conventional meaning of the word, namely the use of state power to control every aspect of life.
What is most remarkable here is the ways in which corporate giants like Verizon and Google simply rolled over and acceded to the government's demands. Make no mistake, this was clearly against their individual business interests. Google, for example, has constructed its public image as a defender of internet freedoms, with, for example, their staunch opposition to CISPA. All these companies do international business, and to run the risk of being revealed as effectively agents of the U.S. government is to risk the worst kind of damage to reputation and profits. We have become used to a situation where civil government becomes a puppet of corporate interests, yet here we see the reverse, corporations placing themselves at the disposal of the government for no clear gain.
Now, of course, we have witnessed a stream of carefully worded denials from the companies concerned and assorted government spokespeople who attempt to assure us that the extent of surveillance is not what the leaked documents indicate, and the cooperation of the named companies is far more limited. There may be an element of truth to this, but, at the same time, we must realize that of course this is what they would say. When interpreting secret and sinister activities, one must give more weight to the documents that the actors wish you hadn't seen, rather than to the polished presentations they want you to see. 
So, on the face of it, we see a major integration of corporate power into the state in a way which creates a new totalitarianism. The question then becomes, what does this mean for the left. I argue that, counterintuitvely, this is very good news indeed.  
Traditional leftist theory always centered around the state. Whether the objective was reform, seizure, or abolition, the state was always the main target. However, since at least the time of Marcuse, and accelerated by the failures of the May '68, leftists have come to regard the formal apparatus of "the state" as irrelevant. We have come to analyze the exercise of power in terms of broader systems of power. Herbert Marcuse, for example, made a monolithic, homogenizing entity known as “Advanced Industrial Society” the central actor in his story. Foucault spent his entire career elaborating a theory detailing the ways in which a decentralized power not vested in any one individual or group shapes everyone in a society. When one is fighting a system so broad, the options are limited. “The state” can be pressured or seized, “Advanced Industrial Society” cannot. 
Such a totalizing system leaves only two options. One may settle into a sort of quiescence, as Marcuse and his Frankfurt School compatriots seemed to do at their worst moments, or one may seek alternative forms of resistance. I think here of those currents within Occupy who regarded the primary purpose of the protests as “modeling a new kind of society” and showing people that “another world is possible.” Of course, few people were impressed by a “new kind of society” centered around sleeping on pavement and relying on the largesse of others for food. Theatrical strategies such as this seemed doomed from the outset.  
However, now, at least in the U.S., the state seems to be reasserting itself as the central organ of class power, which is an event of historical significance. The means of this reassertion is the apparatus of "security" in general, and surveillance in particular. The other organs of bourgeois power, the multinational corporations, are submitting themselves again to the formal apparatus of the state, at this point, only behind closed doors, but it may become more explicit in the future. 
We may still lack a suitable unified revolutionary subject, but our enemies have conveniently reunified themselves. As consolidation in one side of a conflict tends to lead to consolidation of the other side, we have every reason to hope for greater popular unity. So let's get back to targeting the state while the opportunity is ripe.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Implications of the Frozen Female Face

Botox, a type of botulism toxin, is used cosmetically by millions of individuals every year to freeze their facial muscles in order to smooth wrinkles in the skin. Women use it in far greater numbers than men--with men receiving around 10 percent of Botox injections in 2012--although Botox use in men is swiftly increasing numbers. Last year 6.1 million individuals received Botox injections in the US; 5.4 million of them were women. Of course, these numbers are official ones. Some folks can't afford to access Botox by regulated means, so they resort to self-endangerment by seeking out unlicensed practitioners, whose number of Botox administrations remain unreported. Others are endangering themselves by unknowingly receiving unapproved versions of Botox.

Of course, we understand why millions of women pay hard-earned money and endanger themselves for facial injections of a poisonous neurotoxin that is "the most acutely toxic substance known" and has serious potential side effects in order to appear younger for a few weeks, right? The extreme pressure on women to retain a youthful appearance; the unbearable cultural expectations of a certain type of hairless, thin, young, tall, white, European beauty; the constant conditioning and messaging that women's appearance and sexual appeal to men determine our worth... You know, the usual things that women constantly process on an hourly basis in every single aspect of our entire lives. But I want to look beyond the reasons we use Botox to the ramifications of that use.


Silencing Emotion

Jessie Cole's recent article for the Guardian piqued my interest in the implications of Botox use in women. She nicely summarizes the psychosocial dangers of Botox and the potential for a loss of empathy:

"...Botox...minimises micro-expressions, those brief, involuntary facial expressions that reveal our unconscious feeling of anger, happiness, disgust, embarrassment or pride. In a sense, communicating with someone who's had Botox is like communicating with a static image – much of the body language involved is silenced. Considering that body language, mostly consisting of facial expressions, makes up at least half of any message being communicated, this is a significant loss.

But this facial paralysis also inhibits the ability of the Botoxed to mimic the facial expressions of others, which is critical in the formation of empathy. Facial micro-mimicry is the major way we understand others' emotions. If you are wincing in pain I immediately do a micro-wince, which sends a message to my brain about what you are experiencing. By experiencing it myself I understand what you are going through. This suggests that not only do I find my Botoxed friends hard to read, but they are also hindered in their capacity to read me. An unfortunate feedback cycle. The possible implications of this are frightening."

Cole proceeds to suggest that friendships and mother-child bonds could be negatively affected by Botox use in women. Because women comprise the majority of Botox users and 4 million women give birth in the US each year, there are negative implications for children,* as well as society as a whole since the majority of children become adults that make up our population. If parents have frozen faces that cannot display emotions or microexpressions, thereby limiting their ability to empathize, then the development of children could be negatively impacted. She cites Edward Tronick's Still Face Paradigm as a scientific indicator that frozen faces on women would negatively impact children's social and emotional development.

Frozen faces not only physically arrest women, they are also emotionally arrest them. Botox use has been scientifically proven to prevent humans from experiencing a full range of emotions. Richard and C.R. Zwolinksi note, "Scientists agree that there is a causal relationship between facial expression and emotions–if you can’t smile, you can’t feel the emotion associated with that smile. In order to...fully experience the emotional content of language, you must be able to respond to that language with facial movements such as smiles or frowns."  By using Botox, women are perpetuating the cultural message that looking smooth and ostensibly young is more important than nonverbally expressing and feeling emotions.

Cole concludes her article with some fascinating questions:
"With the proliferation of 'selfies' and the focus on static representations of women's faces, are we forgetting how much of who we are is communicated through facial expressions? Are we, in some sense, choosing a form of silence far more insidious than women have ever known in the past? Who benefits from the silencing of women's faces? And what is the cost?" I am intensely curious about who benefits from the silencing of women's faces.

The Male Gaze

The male gaze transforms women into passive objects and requires that they remain in suspended animation indefinitely, perpetually prepared to be observed. Botox is yet another way to make women passive, uncomplaining objects of the gaze. By physically freezing one's emotive features, nullifying one's expressions, dulling one's empathy, and pacifying one's face, Botox makes women blank slates. Botoxed blank slates directly oppose vocal, empowered, expressive, independent women that men and the religions they have created find so troublesome.

Infantilization of Women

Because the gaze renders women past a certain reproductive status invisible and, therefore, useless, women are pressured into pursuing a culturally-accepted notion of youth as beauty. Botox perpetuates the cultural trope of infantilizing women by keeping them in a perpetual state of quasi-childhood. Although Botox does not actually arrest the aging process (or, in my opinion, even maintain a convincing appearance of youth), it does transform wrinkles and fine lines into a smooth, shiny surface reminiscent of a baby's bald head. The infantilization of women combined with the sexualization of girls creates more reproductively viable and visible females for the male gaze to observe and objectify. Now we begin to see who benefits from the "silencing of women's faces."

Those Without It

Without Botox, women have the opportunity to age into being comfortable with themselves, to embrace wrinkles as signs of wisdom, to accept aging as a badge of persistence and survival. The use of Botox is an admission that women are no longer attractive when wrinkled. If women as a class are arrested somewhere between their thirties and fifties, then the ability, as a group, to reject the pervasive cultural notion that they become useless once their reproductive abilities and sexual appeal to men wane, is undermined. The ability to destroy the Double Standard of Aging is eliminated, leaving that pervasive characteristic of patriarchy intact.

If women continue to submit to the male gaze's demand for passive objects, then the woman who refuses to inject botulism into her face--with her rare ability to visually express emotion, show and feel empathy, and age naturally--would become an anomaly. What our generation considers a typically-aging woman (picture your grandmother, assuming she isn't Joan Crawford) would become a grotesque caricature of human emotion and symbol of mortal decay. Her emphatic responses to suffering would make her an oracle of sorts, a deeply feeling poet and philosopher type, the only qualified therapist, mother, sister, and friend. An un-Botoxed woman would become a kind of eccentric character with perceived deep insights and mystical powers, a sort of aging white female version of the magical negro. She would primarily be found sipping lemonade on the Louisiana bayou or making blueberry preserves in the wilds of Maine.

Perhaps my imagination is running away with me. After all, there will always be plenty of working poor who cannot afford such luxuries as perpetual youth. Only in wealthy pockets of imperialist countries are billions of dollars poured into maintaining the patriarchy by accommodating the male gaze while elsewhere in the world poverty, hunger, female genital mutilation, and environmental racism persist.

Cultural hegemony has imposed a racist, imperialist standard of beauty (i.e. white, thin, and tall with straight hair) on cultural representations around the world for centuries. Those standards exclude women of color, women with the scars of work and motherhood, and women with Afro-textured hair. They have always been inaccessible and unattainable to poor women. If rampant Botox use adds an eternally frozen face to the Western standard of beauty, then working class women will be further removed from an already unattainable aesthetic, condemning them to further invisibility to the imperialist patriarchy that so ruthlessly and consistently exploits and ignores them.

Again, I fully understand the pressures to avoid aging at all costs, to be sexually attractive to men, to remain visible to the gaze. A waking hour has never passed during which I was not inundated with those messages. However, our psychosocial development and emotional health as a society should not be subordinate to our personal vanity and perverse internalized desire to uphold the patriarchy by passively accommodating the male gaze. Let us resist these trappings of a system that disgusts us in order to dismantle it.

*Obviously, not all births result directly in parenthood, but many do.