30 October 2007

Two stories

O told us the following story:

Thomas Hobbes had been attending a church service. When he came out of the church he saw a beggar. When asked if he, a proponent of self-interest, would help the beggar if it were not the commandment of Christ, he replied "yes". Hobbes explained that he was pained to see the man's suffering and that giving him some money relieved him of some of the pain that was induced in him by watching the man. In other words, giving money to the beggar was pleasant to him.

M brought up a story about Abraham Lincoln:

Abe saw a helpless pig stuck in the mud. Abe wondered how he would feel if he were the pig in the mud. He decided to help the pig and asked his driver to stop the carriage. Lincoln's driver offered to drag the pig out of the mud, but Lincoln wanted to do it himself. He stated that the pig's life was more important than getting his clothes dirty.

29 October 2007

Do bodies matter?

My otherwise quite boring town is blessed with a film festival for queer cinema. The festival offers an impressing variety of films and visiting the festival makes the autumn somewhat more bearable.

I happened to watch two documentaries about transgender. Interestingly, they dealt with the topic in very different ways. The first one I watched, Red without blue, revolved around a pair of twins, one of whom had changed her gender. It would be misrepresenting the film if one were to say that it dealt with the topic of transgendered people. The story was not about that, it didn't form the centre of the narrative, even though the film did bring up some interesting perspectives on gender. The other, Boy I am, was far more political in that it was explicitly dealing with some debates over transgender and its relation to feminism and butch lesbianism. The experiences of three different guys were presented. It was interesting to hear them talking about why it was important for them to be seen as male (male in a way that is reflected in their bodies), in the eyes of others. The protagonists were talking about identity, having a particular form of body, and being confronted with expectations about conformity to the two-gender stereotype.

Red without blue was a far from perfect documentary. The soundtrack was clumsy at times, and some of the more experimental landscape fragments were slightly out of place. (I don't know why a story has to be backed up by 'haunting' music and beautiful landscapes) Anyways, there was one quality of the film that was positive and also quite rare when looking at the way most documentaries are done. It didn't so much transgress from ordinary narrative structure as it avoided certain ideas about what a narrative should be all about. There were no voiceover. Even if the film did focus very much on how the people involved understood themselves and each other, we were never deceived into thinking that there is one single way in which one understands something. Things were, it seemed to me, never made easy or clear-cut.

The reason why I was so happy about the lack of generalizations and all-out descriptions is that questions about gender are often transformed into quite strange questions about identity. From a perspective where identity is the most important, it is quite easy to forget that I do not understand myself in isolation from the different things that I am presently involved with, the people that I care about, the questions I am confronted with. And the same goes for my understanding of who you are. It is not that I have some overall perception of your 'identity' or your 'self-presentation'. If we want to talk about what it means to understand other people, we should rather look at the different situations in which these questions arise. There are many examples of this in Red without blue. The mother of the twins reflect on whether she would want to say that it makes a difference that her son is now her daughter.

I must confess that I regard quite much of the interest in 'identity' as a sad self-preoccupation: the most important thing is how I am perceived by you - not what I am in my relation with you. As if the main task in our lives is to produce a self-presentation with which we are satisfied, a (re-)presentation that we think is corresponding to our inner "identity". From this point of view, I often have difficulties with much of what is said about transgender and sexualities.

Some of what made these documentaries so important is that they both ask questions about how we talk about and understand ourselves as gendered being. And if there is any sense in that at all. One of the feminists and theorists interviewed in Boy I am, Judith Halberstam, brought up some of the difficulties when grappling with the topic of transgender. Does transgender represent an acceptance of the two-gender system? In other words, are people who biologically change their bodies with the aim of matching expectations about what a specific gender looks like accepting that gender is basically something biological? Note: what this really shows is how inherently troublesome it is to make a general division between sex and gender. I am not saying this in order to make things supposedly of a physical nature fluffy and theoretical, I am trying to understand something. When we talk about expectations about what 'woman' and 'man' looks like in bodily terms, we are not really talking about 'sex' in opposition to 'gender'. Or so it seems to me, at least.

I think there can be no real answer to the question whether 'transgender' necessarily implies an essentialist bias. I think Halberstam provided reasons for why this is so. I would say that there cannot be an answer because "body" is important for people in very different ways. This also goes for those people who change some parts of their bodies. In Boy I am the FTM:s talked about many different things that were connected with their choice to go through with the operation. One of the guys interviewed in the film talked about being sick of the constant questioning about his sex. Another interviewee talked about his discomfort with his body: his experience of moving breasts, closing one's eyes when seeing oneself in a mirror, being enraged that one's body has a particular shape.

I think one thing that makes this so difficult is that our experiences of our bodies, and the bodies of other people, cannot be separated from what it means to perceive something from a point of view where a bodily dimension becomes important. I.e. talking about bodies becomes important in particular contexts and those contexts are themselves embedded, in different ways, in our lives, in the difficulties with which we struggle. I am not clear about how to express this clearly. Perhaps: we cannot simply pick out a bodily dimension from our lives by saying that this is, in a non-problematic way, the physical stuff we are made of. But the problem is that this point easily turns into quite strange ideas about how "a bodily dimension" is permeated by "politics" or "ideology" or that everything physical is, as anything else, a construct. What I am struggling with is how to express the different problems we might have with our bodies without reducing these problems so as to mould them into one form.

We don't, in fact, see ourselves and others as moving bodies. - We do see dead bodies in morgues, don't we? "Are you afraid of seeing a dead body?" But at the same time it is a person, and not a dead body, I am mourning at the morgue.

When I see you approaching me I do not see a body that looks like you. If I realize that the person I saw was not you, I simply say that I thought I saw someone else. When I am chased out of the toilet because I am assumed to have went to the wrong one, what that person sees is not a body that doesn't belong. What, then, do they see? A woman /a man?

Of course there is a bodily dimension in our lives that is made apparent in specific situations. Having a headache, being out of breath, acknowledging that one is nervous when one's stomach is rumbling. But there is no neutral pieces of flesh that 'constitute the human form'. There just aren't such things.

What is it to see 'a woman' or 'a man'? Do we always see women and men when we see people? These are, as far as I am concerned, hard questions. "I saw you running towards me with a big grin on your face" Does it make sense to say that I see a woman? I wouldn't think so. "I saw a man beating up another guy." "I saw a man waving in a window." "That night I saw her holding hands with another girl." "A man came into the bar and I saw him ordering two beers and a tequila - for himself." "I suddenly noticed that he was a man and not a woman." "This morning I once again witnessed that man's jealosy of his business partner." I guess there is no one thing that would link these example to one single meaning of "seeing somebody as a man/woman". But what is it that we have understood when we have said that there is no such thing as seeing somebody as a man or as a woman in general? What is the bearing of the point?

Of course, pointing at the things I have done just now doesn't in any way solve problems of feeling alienated from one's body. What it does show is that it is not much we can say about bodies and gender in isolation from specific examples and thuse it would be confused to see 'transgender' as related to e.g. 'lesbianism' or 'gender' in one single way. What a boring conclusion, you might say, and of course you are right.

28 October 2007

the brown envelope

Playboy magazine is probably delivered to creep-subscribers safely and comfortably packaged in a brown envelope. But the same possibity is offered by Z-lehti, to my knowledge Finland's only paper dedicated to queer culture.

If your neighbor would know...

27 October 2007

Question

Today I've been visiting various Internet forums. All of a sudden it became apparent to me that, somewhere out there, there are plenty of people who share the opinion that Islam and terrorism are one and the same thing and that there is a fundamental opposition between 'them' and 'us' (Westerners).

On these forums Swedish kids and adults are fervously slandering Islam and Muslims (sometimes also religion in general) and here both hate and disgust are expressed. I must confess that I had no clue that people actually think like this. Or should we really say that they 'think' about this at all? Perhaps that would be to acknowledge to much of it.

In some sense it is apparent that these people weren't interested in talking about Islam at all. Of course they were not interested in the history of religion, and would, I think, not be moved by different kinds of descriptions of Islam as religion, belief or politics.

Something else was going on in the discussion. In this case I don't know quite what to say. It is arburd to see Swedish kids expressing their worry about terrorism in a way that makes one think that this is what constitutes the major threat in their lives. Of course it doesn't. But why, then, all this fervor? I don't know. Do you?


I start thinking about the crazy terrorist chaser in A land of plenty (a film by Wim Wenders).

24 October 2007

Movietone: The sand and the stars


Sometimes it takes me a few years to appreciate an album. It is like this: I listen to a record every now and then but it doesn't do anything for me. I still feel there's something there to experience, if only I were able to focus on it without distraction. (Sometimes, of course, I give up)

Lately I've been listening to The sand and the stars (2003) by Movietone and tonight I suddenly realized the magic of the album. Their music is hard to categorize in terms of genres - a good sign. It has sometimes been epitomezed as 'abstract pop'. I find that label quite appealing. (Cf. Au revoir Simone, Ellen Allien and Lali puna)

Movietone generally avoids tired melody patterns. There are melodies, sure, but they are swirling around, lost at times, suddenly forcefully brought back. What first seemed to me a quite boring bunch of songs now stand out as subtle but approachable music. The album is very consistent, it builds on repetition, with small variations, of the one and the same atmosphere. Some of the tunes remind me of Brittish folk music from the late 60's and early 70's, combined with newer 'folk' artists such as Six organs of admittance and Hush Arbours. Other aspects of the album have a closer relation to Mark Hollis' jazzy and melancholy songs. Hollis is the former singer of 80's band Talk Talk. He released one solo album which is quite fantastic in all its minimalist sadness. I wish he'd make more music. I have no idea what happened to him.

The sound of The sand and the stars is very warm, with lots of humming piano, horns and accordion, but paradoxically the album somehow retains the feel of a chilly southern English town. The band is from Bristol. This is in many senses a very rich album - on the surface it might appear drab but once one is under its thrall all of its dimensions become apparent (compare: scotch wiskey). Its pace is generally slow, but it has few things in common with the mainstream of singer-songwriters of today. Perhaps some of the wistfulness of Beirut's music could be used as one form of comparison, but Movietone lacks Beirut's knack for drama. Which is quite nice, I would venture to say.

22 October 2007

Academic business

Today I was parttaking in a seminar dealing with an important issue at our Uni, the personnel in which consists of those who are employed by it, the "real" staff, and people who are dependent on scholarships. It is good to get information, it is good to learn how different parties think about the situation.

But there were some things in the discussions that seemed strange to me. A dystopic picture of the future was conveyed by the way people tended to talk. The current situation was depicted in terms of the research student's attempt to be allowed into the élite of academia. If you're not in the élite, then you're a fucking nobody. Then you'll be rejected everywhere and you'll end up unemployed, and you cannot even count on being granted unemployment benefit.

Of course I know that this is a true description of the situation. I don't dispute that, and doing it would be plain stupid. I don't think people are complaining too much, not at all - people were rather asking constructive questions about practical things and about how the situation is to be changed for the better.

But I think it is a bad thing to see this as the only possible options, anything else being "unrealistic". It is somehow taken for granted that the only possibility for universities is to adapt to some sort of business logic. To compete, to attract the big Buck by presenting research projects as something to be applied to and utilized in business. On the other hand: while the legitimacy of business is never, never questioned, the legitimacy of doing research is constantly scrutinized: what makes your research project a useful one?

After having graduated as a M.A, I started a Ph.D project. By that time, I was quite oblivious to how deep concerns about academic competition actually go. Now, I've been noticing it in the way I think about the work I do, and especially in how I think about what kind of work I should be doing.

There are days when I worry about being slow & stupid: when my mind is numb and every question seems irrelevant and everything I read is unintelligible. That is one thing. It's part of the job, I guess. But then there's another thing: I worry that I am too slow, that I should figure things out soon. Soon. That I should gain some sense of how my topic is structured. This means that I start thinking about what I am doing from the outside. It is no longer important what I am thinking about but rather what it looks like in the eyes of the guys who decide about scholarship applications. In the eyes of journal reviewers who would make my article into an entry on my CV.

Today I got an e-mail about my abstract for a seminar on "belief"/"faith". It was rejected. That's OK, it was not a well-written abstract. But what is pissing me off is that I start to think about this in terms of how I should start writing things that will pave the way for grand appearances at seminars. But that's not what research should be all about, is it? Instead of making me more efficient, these types of perspectives make me tired and confused.

That's Bullshit.

19 October 2007

Novel question: solved

I finally found out the name of the author of the book I was talking about a few days ago. The book is called Épépé and it is written by Ferenc Karinthy (so he was actually from Hungary). If you dig Kafka and Cube, the film, then you should read this.

Fishmonger

Last night I got an SMS from Petrus. He was inquiring about the fishmarket. Have I got a workshift for him? I wrote back that it would be a little bit tricky for me to fix that. But good luck with the fish, Petrus.

I was sad to disappoint him. Wonder what he'll do now. Maybe he'll get a job at Hesburger. Or he will attend a course. Perhaps he'll get pissed at Hunter's. (In his position, I'd opt for that) Perhaps he is not like that at all - he'll hang out at mum & dad's, watching a romcom, eating popcorn.

Why am I not a fishmonger?

18 October 2007

Conservapedia


Conservatives dissatisfied with the "liberal bias" of Wikipedia have joined hands and created Conservapedia, an effort to get the facts straight by contributing with a neutral point of view in the world of dictionary knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the logo of Conservapedia is the American flag. Already this gives a hint of how "neutral" Conservapedia is. (What symbol would you choose so as to induce a conviction ín the reader of your neutrality?) The name itself, Conservapedia, is a hint in the same direction. Perhaps they are alluding to a need to preserve the eternal truths?

I checked the entry on homosexuality (just had to):
http://www.conservapedia.com/Homosexuality
Just as I expected, Conservapedia relates homosexuality to Biblical condemnation, diseases, mental illness, bad parenting and a thousand scandals. Conservapedia mentions virtually all "scientists" who in some way or other have set out to prove the evil nature of the "homosexual lifestyle".

The scary thing when reading this kind of stuff is that it is hard not to react by being slightly amused. "Oh, the American Conservatives, how silly. Morans!" But of course it is more serious than that. That this kind of thing actually exists and that people are deluded enough to maintain this as being "a neutral point of view".

I don't want to say that the debate over neutrality is very illuminating as such. The worst thing with Conservapedia is not that it is not neutral. It is the evil intentions expressed that make it scary. "Proving" that "we" are quite right in oppressing homosexuals "and people like that". But of course, the Conservapedia people would be totally oblivious - or they would seem to be - of why anyone would talk about "oppression" here. (As a side note: Conservapedia has no entry for "oppression", but Wikipedia does)

But debates over neutrality tend to shed some light on how much we can swallow when something is invoked as an instance of "scientific facts" or "a neutral point of view". But this, of course, does not show that neutrality is a mere idiosyncratic construct. This is a misuse of neutrality. (Think about how we talk about manipulation)

From the entry on "evil": "The fight against evil can be radical, even violent, but on a person to person level, often the most successful tactic is admonition."

14 October 2007

A note from Dr. Phil

It's funny how I sometimes feel very awkward in a situation, but at the same time I am unable to pin down what it is that makes me feel this way. Is it something about how people perceive me or is it something about myself? I want to come up with all kinds of justifications: "They don't really want me here" or "wasn't it just plain stupid for me to go here and meet these people that I have nothing in common with". But there's something in these "justifications" that worries me.

I might be totally at a loss of finding a description of my awkwardness. I can't really say that I have good reasons to feel out of place. It is not that I can say that I see people glancing at me in an unpleasant way or anything like that. But I do want to say that I feel people glancing at me.
Often it happens that this feeling of being out of place suddenly disappears. I find myself in the middle of conversation and the annoying feeling of awkwardness no longer pesters me.

But when I no longer feel out of place, I am not trying to motivate or justify my feelings of joy and excitement. They are no problem that I have to deal with. One could say that my feelings are hard to pin down in terms of something I actually see. But saying that seems strange. When I feel that people are staring queerly at me, the thought whether I really do see that naturally arises. I, as it were, don't want them to look at me in that way and I am asking myself whether I am not simply feeling awkward because I have some strange expectations about the situation.

You might blame me for adopting an odd conception about what it is to "see" something. That is perhaps right. But I was trying to say something about how "the character of what I see" is questioned in some situations, but not in others.

Kind regards,
Dr. Phil

10 October 2007

Novel question

I am going nuts and can't go to sleep because I cannot recall the name of a novel.

I remember this much: The author is from eastern Europe. Maybe Hungaria, or Romania. It was translated into Swedish in the 80's, but I don't know when it was originally published.

A man travels to a place he thinks is some particular city (Helsinki?), but by and by he finds out that he has ended up in a country where he simply can't understand the human beings around him. He can't understand their language, and most of their activities seem unintelligible and bureaucratic. As I recall it, the protagonist is a linguist, or a person familiar with many languages, so there is a lot of discussion about what the strange language may be. He finds no clues whatsoever. He hooks up with a woman, a cleaner (I think) to whom he forms some kind of attachment, and the novel deals with his attempts to make himself understood by her and by others. With poor results.

The picture of language and understanding presented in the book made me think of Quine and his thought experiment of "gavagai" - the book shared with Quine a certain idea as to what is the most "primitive" or "primary" form of language (namely, "experience-based language").

As such, the novel was not particularly well written, and the story was sometimes quite contrived and I felt that the descriptions of the persons were often quite artificial. I also felt the novel to be a quite crude attempt at an allegory of communism, but what was interesting about it was its depiction of language and understanding.

The name of the book is a complicated, made-up word. With a z or an x in it, perhaps.
And yes, I did try Google, but didn't find anything there either.

Anyone?

9 October 2007

The Sea


I am listening to one of my favorite records, Dutch harbor: where the sea breaks its back by Boxhead ensemble. It's a record of mostly instrumental music, very quiet and atmospheric (I would usually be suspicious of that tag, discrediting it as "ambient music", which I usually detest). I haven't seen the documentary to which Dutch Harbor is a soundtrack. I know, however, that it is about a fishing port located on Unalaska, an island off the coast of western Alaska in the Bering sea. Belonging to the loose and by now quite notoriously boring tradition of "post-rock music" (the band consists of members from famous bands) Boxhead ensemble makes slow, droning tunes based mostly on guitars, but also on piano. Dutch harbor also contains radio sounds, spoken parts and also a song with Will Oldham on leading vocals. Without being especially melodical, the record is really captivating as it creates a quite specific sound, restrained and subtle.
The music of Rachel's can be seen as a point of comparison, but their music has, in my opinion, a much more "academic" feel to it which is quite hard to explain. The music sometimes comes out as too clinical, too pure. Another reference is Ocean songs, a haunting, maritime themed album by Australians Dirty three. But Dirty three's music is charcterized by melodies, however dynamic, rather than drones.

I stumbled on the album when killing time in a record shop in Prague a thousand years ago. I haden't heard anything about it then. Shut off from the world by a pair of headphones I was immediately enthralled.

Listening to this record makes me realize how much I sometimes miss living on an island surrounded by water. Dozing off on a car ferry in winter time, feeling numb, listening to the roar of crushing ice and engines. Freezing one's ass off in a car, looking at the water and the mist on the car windows.

8 October 2007

Philosophy

Reading bad & dry philosophy is like....

  • swallowing stones
  • bad booze
  • an itch
  • having something in one's eye that prevents one from seeing properly
  • junkmail: wanna be something more than the regular guy? / royal bank of Scotland's new security system / hi, I love you

Memory

My philosophy teacher in high school was fond of repeating his points. One of his favorites was about entrepreneurship. He used to talk about a girl who sent an ad to papers, challenging employers to contact her, and not vice versa. Mr. Philosophy teacher thought that was brilliant, very ambitious.

He said: "The future is like that."

2 October 2007

Jesus camp

Jesus camp is a documentary about a pentecostal pastor who arranges summer camps for kids. The documentary focuses on the pastor and the kids, rather than trying to make a very general point about the religious right (even if it did say something about that). It is a film about specific people. It was clear from the start that the kids in the film are indocrtrinated into a movement where religion is war and the question of utmost importance is opposition to arbortion. The open glorification of war surprised me, but only a little.

Even though the scenes of religious services were very revealing, it was other scenes that stayed in my mind. A girl who enjoys dancing to christian heavy metal is worried that she is not always dancing with the aim of glorifying God. Summer camp kids are telling ghost stories but one of the adults spoils the fun by warning them them that Christianity is about talking about what is beautiful and good.

The funniest part of the film was the encounter between a child preacher and one of the famous evangelical preachers, Ted Haggard. Haggard asks the kid if he has any listeners. The kid, quite humbly, answers 'yes'. In a rude tone of voice, Haggard asks if this is because the kid is cute or if he really has a message. Then he goes on to say that it is OK for the kid preacher to be popular in virtue of being a cute boy until he is thirty - by then, he might have a message to deliver.

(Haggard lost his position last year due to a drug & sex scandal.)

privatization of war etc.

There are many things about world politics I have a hard time understanding. Too many questions seem childish and naive, on the verge of insanity. From a certain point of view, that is. "This is how the world works, deal with it."

The existence of some phenomena indicates how certain things are taken for granted, that certain things are considered to be normal, OK. I'm thinking about the firms that supply 'soldiers' to US security forces in Iraq. Firms with the main objective of supplying mercenary troops. Firms profiting on war. Great business, I can imagine. Of course I can see the logic going on here. The lack of responsibility is practical, of course. Human resources are lacking in the security forces. But I can't help asking: what is it like to work for that kind of firm? In a news article, a guy from the infamous Blackburn tells the journalist that he is not only doing it for the money - there is something about it that makes him go back.

I don't know much about this at all. Here is one of the articles I've read:
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070528/scahill

1 October 2007

I'm all ears

Due to ear inflammation (with eardrum screwed up), I am experiencing a strange and quite beautiful auditory revelation. Poetic, but not so pleasant. Every sound is strengthened to an unbearable level. I feel like the dying astronaut in 2001: A space odyssey, listening to myself breathing. Claustrophobia.

The claustrophobia of being aware of the unity of space and sound. Any sound is external and internal at the same time. When not in this state, sounds are usually something quite neutral. Of course, one pays attention to a bang or somebody shouting. But that is still quite unusual. At least, sounds have a quite unproblematic place in the sense that we can say things about what is happening, how close or far something is from us, based on hearing. When in this ear inflammatory state, all sounds are on an equal level, which fucks up the relation between space and sound. When walking on the sidewalk and a car is driving by, it feels like the car is inside my ear, like a fly or a mosquito, and not on the street.

Things I've been hearing today:

the buzz of the radiator
my own steps
the washing machine in the café (that was terrible)
my ear
blood pumping in my head
the air condition system
my computer
running water
people turning pages

I am happy to be a philosophy student, thinking causes no noise. In its purest form. Damn it, I outed myself as a Cartesian. The truth is rather the opposite: if we wouldn't talk, we wouldn't think.