July 31, 2007
‘VE been sick. V sick. And in recovery. Me sorry 😦
(In case you haven’t noticed, I’m sticking by the Aussie… well, Britsky spelling of words with ‘-ised’ in them. My tiny stand against crazy American-iSAtion of spelling. Yeah.)
So this evening I attended a seminar given by Kane Race at Sydney Uni. I really like Kane’s stuff—I’ve seen him present before, talking about the way that discourse about drugs (both prescription and not) never really gets around to paying attention to the pleasures of such activities. His book, which is eagerly awaited (by me, amongst others), almost finished (by him) and published by Duke, is going to be called Pleasure Consuming Medicine which as you can no doubt tell, is one of those clever meaning-play titles that contains the entire thesis. Keep your eyes peeled for it.
So: to the seminar. Today Kane talked about pleasure in relation to illicit drug use, from a paper to be published in I think the International Journal of Drug Policy. As one can imagine, those from the ‘abstinence’ camp simply deny the pleasures of drug use, in order to try to undermine the attractiveness of them (well, that’s a simplification, of course, but that’s the gist). In fact, most public health campaigns based on the whole ‘abstinence’ thing fail miserably, because first of all, the experiences of drugs expressed doesn’t match those of the users (who oddly enough tend to claim it’s pleasurable), and second, the denial of pleasure just winds up making any of that authoritarian ‘advice’ seem stupid and out of touch. The other, more Foucauldian observation about abstinence campaigns is that they operate through pathologisation, where ‘bad’ behaviour is taken to be indicative of a deviant individual. For those who don’t know Foucault all that well, this is from the History of Sexuality Volume 1, and in that context, it is taken to apply to sexuality. The sudden emergence of scientific and psychologistic observations, cataloguing and theorising about sexuality in the Victorian period enabled the development of sexual identities: that is, although there were doubtless people who engaged in what we would now call homosexual sex prior to this period, they were not previously defined by these behaviours; after the development of these catalogues, identities such as ‘the invert’ and ‘the homosexual’ became possible (alongside the ‘heterosexual’, of course). These kinds of identities operated through poles of normal and abnormal. The same kinds of pathologising moves, Race was arguing, occur in relation to drug use.
In an echo of Foucault, who distinguished pathologised and medicalised ‘desire’ from ‘pleasure’ which was less framed by normalising discourse, Race suggests that paying attention to where and how pleasure comes to operate in relation to drug use has the possibility of moving away from the moralistic tendencies of pathologising drug users. In the first place, as harm minimisation methods have long argued, the shift from policing an identity to developing safer behaviours is less (though probably not completely free of) moralising. In the second place, and here we hit a contentious spot in Foucault, Race argues that pleasure is socially and culturally shaped material less constituted (in comparison to, say, desire) in and through a logic of the individual normalising subject. The contention here is that some have argued that at this moment, Foucault alludes to a pre-cultural body; Race explicitly disagrees with such a reading, and in relation to drug use draws on a 1970s (or is it 1950s??) article entitled ‘Becoming a Marihuana User’ by Becker. In this article, Becker suggests that there are three steps to becoming a marijuana user: “1)… learn… to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects, 2) learn… to recognise the effects and connect them with the drug use and 3) learn… to enjoy the sensations he [sic] perceives.” Race argues that the processes by which these three steps take place are socially mediated rather than developed through normalising and scientific discourses. Often, these social interactions also involve a negotiation of risks and some consideration of safety in amongst the development of particular pleasures. Yet in denying that which goes into the production of pleasure, as abstinence and even some harm minimisation methods do, public health campaigns tend to fail to recognise the often very successful negotiation of ‘safety.’
Okay, forgive the haziness of this; my notes are bad and I’m very tired (and still in sickness-recovery!). The general point, though, is that tapping into these processes of pleasure-constitution and risk-negotiation enables a non-moralising, or at any rate much less moralising and normalising engagement with users. I agree with this, particularly in this instance, but I still have questions about the extent to which social interaction can really be considered to be, or, better, be relied upon to be non-normalising. I think of the amount of policing that occurs in and around social interaction, and the ways that that policing is (sometimes explicitly, often not) moralising and normalising. Samantha Murray, for example (sorry, I can’t find a reference, this was at a conference; will post later if I find it), critiques Foucault’s ‘care of the self’ ethics (actually Kane talked a lot about this, but I skipped that stuff out… sorry!) on the basis that the very terms by which such a negotiation of selfhood might happen are not neutral. Foucault takes this ‘care of the self’ ethics from an analysis of Greek and Roman ways of being, and whilst he doesn’t simply want us to go back to a golden era, he does think that the reflective elements of care of the self as it was done then could be applied to now. However, he recommends the value of ‘moderation’ in relation to developing a care of the self, and here Murray offers her challenge. She uses the example of the fat body to demonstrate that this ‘moderation’ dovetails all too neatly with the pathologisation of particular bodies, particular ways of being, and in ways that often shape social interactions of various kinds, rather than being shaped by them. In other words, the current set of aesthetics which engender the desire for a thin body cannot help but be part and parcel of the kinds of ‘care’ we try to take of ourselves (though this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re simply bearing out power’s program, either).
I suppose in the end, my concern with Kane’s thesis is that whilst there are and will always these kinds of social interactions that allow for the productions of pleasures not fully bound to the normal liberal humanist subject, this doesn’t mean that they are not, or will not become normalising, especially if the infiltration of medicalised knowledge into everyday social interactions continues at the rate it is. Whilst, then, I agree that social interaction may well permit some of these pleasures to occur, this same social interaction is also part of the diffuse operation of power. I can’t remember who it was who suggested that while the images of women’s bodies in, say, women’s magazines may well have a negative effect on girls’ body image, part of the ways that they become so effective is in and through the kinds of group policing that girls are involved in. In relation to drug use, we need to be aware that there are other kinds of normalising going on in around and perhaps even through the kinds of social interaction that Race demonstrates is key to pleasure and to the negotiation of safety. Perhaps the most obvious form might be the ‘I can do what I want with my body,’ a justification which although absolutely understandable nonetheless reiterates a liberal humanist and Cartesian subjectivity. But more disturbingly (I thought, as I made dinner tonight) is the possibility that an awareness of these communal productions of pleasures and the concommitant negotiations of risk could in fact be used in some ways to inform an abstinence program, and may even be already understood in this way. For example, the absence of information about safer strategies for drug use in the public sphere means that only some communities are capable of this kind of pleasure-production-and-risk-negotiation-sharing. Abstinence campaigns, then, seek to use their moralising tools to dismantle the possibilities for pleasure, for example by disallowing or reducing the circulation of techniques for pleasure. With the knowledge granted by analyses like Race’s, how much more repressive and targeted might abstinence campaigns become? (Okay, a lil hysterical there, but it’s a legit worry, I think).
In some sense, here, though, I wonder again about Foucault’s ‘repressive hypothesis,’ which suggests that that which is supposedly being repressed is in fact produced in and through the repression. That is, as power claims (I’m personifying power, which is theoretically a naughty move, but it’s just shorthand) that sex is so bad it mustn’t happen, it ensures that sex happens in ways that feel naughty and in the ways it (power) describes. The distinction between desire (repressed) and pleasure (not so much) seems a little hazy here. In translating this across to the drug use case, I wonder whether abstinence campaigns come to produce precisely what they supposedly repress: dangerous drug use, pleasurable, deviant and risky. How much, though, is the pleasure involved partially the result of this construction?
Or, in a larger concern, if drug use, for all its pleasurable undermining of individualistic liberal humanist subjectivity, is justified or simply thought of as part of the function of that liberal humanist subjectivity (I do it coz I wanna, even though (read, because) it’s bad and they tell me not to do it like this) how resistant is this pleasure? Can it be understood as normalising, perhaps even moralising, just not in the ways we expect?
This is too crude a formulation, because it appears now that I’m denying Race’s point, and I’m really not. It’s incredibly important to acknowledge the ways that communities work to develop resistant pleasures and even risk negotiations; and for a harm minimisation approach, this kind of theoretical consideration is incredibly useful for developing strategies that actually might work. Yet it must be acknowledged that the context within which such strategies function is not neutral (not that I think that there’s some wondrous place beyond power which is ‘value-neutral’), and that the reiteration of the liberal humanist and ‘healthy‘ individual in and through even harm minimisation techniques isn’t innocent, and does have effects on the ways that certain groups are conceptualised and treated in relation to drug use. And that the harm minimisation attempt to tap into the social interactions Race identifies may have unintended moralising, normalising and thus rather problematic effects.
I’m going to leave it on that clumsy note because I’m tired and can’t even be bothered proof-reading (I am an evil blogger, to do this to you, I know). Further and hopefully more nuanced thoughts soon, especially about the absence of the other in Foucault (in amongst the Derrida post I’ve been working on that explains how sick I’ve been and makes other such excuses!) Bona nox!
July 23, 2007
he teacher is in her mid to late fifties. She always wears her hair pinned up, make up powdery but impeccable, and skirts slightly longer than knee length. Her life revolved around the school: she attended PAGS, then went to teacher’s college, then to France, and then came back and joined PAGS as staff. She never married. In class, she picks her nose with a long nail openly while we’re doing exercises, a careful cleaning surprisingly not at odds with her propriety. English, French and Latin are her charges. Latin is an extra-curricular subject she offers for free, taught from books twenty years old and intended for English schoolboys, with covers faded to pink and held together with contact.
The class is small. There’s about seven of us in total. She once spent half the hour we had for class waxing lyrical about how wonderful a dot of lavender oil on handkerchiefs was, the luxury of taking a purely white handkerchief from one’s pocket, and the scent of lavender rising from it. We surreptitiously encouraged it: there was a kind of game to keeping her talking about crap.
This particular day, she’s running late. We’re sitting chatting, when she hastens through the door. “So, girls, are we all ready to learn to be elegant young ladies?”
I stand. “I think I’m in the wrong class,” I say, grabbing my books.
There’s a pause. I sit. “What, don’t you all want to learn to become elegant young ladies?” she asks in seemingly honest bemusement.
As one, we all rock our chairs back, spread our legs, dangle a hand in our laps, slouch, and announce “Nuuuh!”
Word to live by.
July 20, 2007
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under class
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UE to my littlest sister being in town, I haven’t had much time to blog. Playing at tour guide actually takes a reasonable amount of time. But I’ve managed to make myself really rather sick (it’s really cold in Sydney right now) so we’re playing at home today. We saw ‘Othello’ at the Opera House last night. Lil sis is studying drama in Adelaide, so I figured this was a good plan, and as it turned out, it was. I find Othello an intriguing play because race plays out in it so strongly and yet often in ways quite different to the ways it would now. It’s completely tragic, and even though Iago, the biggest baddie ever writ, so they say, is caught in the end, the horror he’s caused makes the idea of even his death seem not enough of a punishment. (Indeed, Othello says something about this at the end: that he doesn’t want to kill him because he wants him to live with it. Unfortunately for Othello, Iago really doesn’t seem to mind…)
Othello is, in the play’s terms, a Moor. Though this figure is clearly racialised, it’s not altogether clear which threads of historical racialisation it picks up on: the ‘Sparknotes’ synopsis I read before I went (not trusting my Shakespearean ear to carry me alone) says that the usual contemporary understanding of ‘Moor’ as the Islamic Arabian people from northern Africa who invaded Spain is probably more specific than in Shakespeare’s time. In the version we saw, Othello was played by Wayne Blair, an indigenous actor recognisable from a fair few Australian TV shows (and the film Mullet), amongst a range of other plays and performances. It was an intriguing choice (Marion Potts is a pretty famous director), as was the way Blair played him: the physicality he brought to the stage was different to the others. Even the steps he took across the stage expressed it; he raised his leg higher, and put each foot down with such slow deliberateness it seemed like he was pushing down through the air from about 8 inches above the floor. This cautiousness was combined with abrupt shifts in direction, sudden turns towards and away from other characters. Whilst at first it was a little jarring (probably combined with the fact that one of the minor characters was played by a stand-in who carried his script onstage!), I think it was intended to express something of the uncertain place Othello holds in his context.
Othello is a general in the Venetian war against the Turks (who are threatening to take over Cyprus and then, of course, the rest of the Christian world), and as such he is respected and trusted. He’s an open, likeable man, and seems to trust to the goodness of human nature, at least up until Iago plays his game. Yet his status is clearly a tenuous position, and the continual marking of Othello as only mostly civilised, with an underlying viscerality and passion demonstrates this. Blair’s movements on stage expressed this ambiguity.
Iago, played by Marcus Graham, who has a long list of TV and film performances and managed the character with extraordinary ease, is one of the few almost incomprehensibly evil characters in the Shakespeare I know. The only motive he seems to have, really, is hatred; it’s unclear whether he really just hates everyone and so is keen to see them hurt, or absolutely abhors Othello, and counts whatever means towards the end of undoing Othello as a-OK. I suspect, though, that it is partly Othello’s race which makes Iago’s motivations more believable. Simply evil characters are difficult to believe, if they gain little from their evil; but with Othello marked as racialised, Iago’s hatred gains an uncomfortable veracity, a ‘justification’ that’s never really pointed out clearly.
But the nastiness of Iago lies in the fact that he appears, the whole time, to be on everyone’s side. When Cassio loses his position as Othello’s second (through Iago’s concealed intervention), Iago recommends that he approach the sympathetic Desdamona, Othello’s wife. When Roderigo loses Desdamona, who he loves, to Othello, Iago appears helpful, sympathetic. Even Iago’s interactions with Othello are painfully generous, only ever looking out for his general. It’s the worst kind of treachery to watch, because you can see how utterly believable and loyal Iago manages to appear to each and every pawn in his game. The fact that almost all of them wind up dead reminds of how lacking the supposed ‘protection’ of law-based justice is; his arrest is emotionally and ethically unsatisfying, because he has manipulated the loyalty and passion of Desdamona, Emilia, Roderigo and even Othello to such awful ends. Is it racism that motivates this? I think that, as concealed as it is, it is equal to the task; and Iago’s arrest then feels like law protecting its own, rather than the law intervening to counter aggression.
Race and class, though, are played out together in interesting ways. Iago is clearly—all the way down to the messy way he wears his uniform and his free movements (at least when he’s alone)—of a different class to Cassio and Othello. This is drawn attention to most explicitly by Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdamona’s maid. Desdamona, chafing at the accusations Othello is leveling against her, says that she would not cheat on her husband, “not for all the world!” Emilia responds with deceptive cheerfulness that she would absolutely cheat, “if it would make of my husband a monarch.” Desdamona is horrified, in a proper upper-class way, but Emilia is pragmatic. Later, after Iago’s plot is exposed, though, she refuses to shut up as he tells her to and in passionate despair admits how he had manipulated her to undo Othello’s marriage and position. He kills her, though it’s unclear if this is for disloyalty to him (and loyalty to (her position as maid to?) Desdamona) or just… well, just to add another body to the count now that he’s been arrested. At the beginning of the play, too, Iago voices his disapproval of Othello picking Cassio over him for promotion, suggesting that Cassio is far too bookish, and has little experience in the field. And thus Cassio’s class enabled his promotion. It would seem, then, that while part of Iago’s hatred of Othello is premised upon race, this cannot be unbound from a sense of class resentment: despite his race, Othello has achieved a status Iago longs for and is denied based on class. Or perhaps more strongly: I wonder how much Iago’s hatred of Othello arises because Othello accepts his status, and despite the difficulties he faces being marked as other, upholds the class system. Perhaps, in Iago’s eyes, he has few excuses for lacking awareness of the privilege and possibilities of his position…
July 15, 2007
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under class
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REMEMBER the day I typed ‘privilege’ into etymonline like it was yesterday. I don’t know why I love etymologies so much, but I think it’s because they’re so very telling sometimes: the origins of the word seem so often to reveal a function of the word usually covered over by current definitions and usages; a kind of que(e)r(y)ing. Privilege, as it turns out, means ‘law applying to one person,’ or, more clearly, ‘individual law.’ This had me incredibly excited, because this is, in lots of ways, the way that privilege actually works. Or, better, how it feels: it’s pretty clear that privilege doesn’t simply apply to a single person—institutions, discourse, customs, interpersonal relations, language and even, I would argue, embodiment, all function together (though rarely fully coherently, as Foucault is at pains to demonstrate) to maintain the privilege of particular groups. But one of the strongest fantasies that mark privilege is the illusion that the subject is wholly self-sufficient. The law of the individual.
The claim of self-sufficient individuality is incredibly powerful, in a huge variety of ways. As Butler, following Foucault and Derrida, demonstrates that in claiming that the subject is ‘before the law,’ the law itself maintains a two-fold fantasy: that all subjects are equal before the law, and that the law is only the product of the people—and is certainly not that which produces the subjects it addresses (give Althusser a wave, kids!) By repeatedly (and repetitively, it has to be said!) claiming the primacy of the individual, the law (in the most general as well as specific senses) retains its unquestionable status, its authority. But it goes further than this, and here I’m going to be drawing on Rosalyn Diprose’s work in Corporeal Generosity a fair bit, though not explicitly.
This kind of radical individuality permits the denial of the fact that I only am because there are others (though this isn’t just a Levinasian point). The possibility of being able to say ‘I,’ of being (even capable of it) is premised on the peculiar culture we live in. (I think I remember Deleuze saying somewhere that we always assume that the ‘edge’ of ‘my’ ‘body’ marks my individuality, but that this is merely a function of the culture (he doesn’t say culture) in which we are currently living. It gave me that heady, fevered sensation I always get when reading Deleuze; a little like too much wasabi for the mind :-)). But more than this, ‘I’ doesn’t make sense except in a context. And this context, of course, is filled with others. As numerous scholars have pointed out (from the obscure texts of Lacan (I’m sorry, but that’s how I remember him!) to Levinas to Merleau-Ponty to Irigaray), it is only because others are different from me that I ever get a sense of myself, that I ever become a subject, that I ever say ‘I’. This isn’t just a cognitive belief, but something we embody; it informs all the ways that we are in the world (at least lots of the time, however shaky my ‘I’ might be).
In this way, it is the generous gift of difference that enables me to be. (See also the Merleau-Ponty post.) And this is not just a thing that happens at some point early in life, after which all is settled (take that, psychoanalysis!) Rather, it is perpetually in process, and must remain so. In addition, the distinction between me and other(s) is the basis upon which language can be and happen, that all meaning is built. It is the basis upon which community—which might appear and often functions as if it is all about sameness (commonness, unity)—can exist.
Privilege, then, this private law, this law of the individual, enables and indeed necessitates the denial of these gifts, the forgetting of them, as Diprose puts it. It is only in refusing to accept that I am who I am only because others are other, in denying this relation, that I can claim self-sufficient individuality, that site of privilege shaped by privilege. This, Diprose says, is theft. This theft, in the end, is privilege: the ability to claim that I am who I am alone, without others: that I am white all on my own (as if I didn’t need racialised others for ‘white’ to make sense), that I am male all on my own (as if I didn’t need women to be my mirror), that I am normal (as if this did not rely upon others being deemed abnormal), that I am able-bodied (as if this were not a claim made possible only because others are not), that I am unambiguously sexed (as if that didn’t depend on intersexed and trans people to mean anything at all), that I am straight all on my own (without the defining queerness)…
I am only because of others, a huge variety of generous others. *This,* in response to FiD’s question over at the lovely Thinking Girl’s blog on a Kevin aka Thin Black Duke of Slant Truth post, is why *I* am personally interested and yes, invested, in ‘battles’ that may not be my ‘own’. Privilege doesn’t just affect an individual; it squashes and reduces others and their difference into being nothing more than a mirror that reproduces that privilege (which in the end gives all of us fewer ways to be not to mention lots more paranoia and hurt). We see the nasty effects of that kind of thinking happening in Oz right now. So I know how white privilege squashes difference and causes sufferng; just like I know more how male privilege does the same; alongside the privilege of being unambiguously sexed, (temporarily) able-bodied, normal, middle-class, straight… the list goes on (and of course, I’m not even getting into the ‘intersections’ of these marks (though Ian Barnard’s piece ‘Queer Race’ troubles some traditions of intersectionality on this point. (Sorry, can’t seem to find ref! It might be from his book of that title, but I was almost sure it was a 1999 article…)). Some of these privileges are ones I hold, and I know that the continuation of that privilege and the attendant disadvantage to a whole mass of other people which is the condition of its possibility, is dependent upon (amongst lotsa other things) the privileged not being aware of their privilege; i.e., not being aware of difference. Forgetting the generosity of others, not least the difference that allows them to be. Assuming that they are, actually, simply self-sufficient individuals naturally accorded the benefits they bear which they don’t recognise as such, because they’re supposedly just the result of the natural way for individuals to be: if you’re white, you naturally get money and recognition and acceptance; if you’re straight, you naturally get the protection of the state for your relationships and kids. And so on. You get the idea.
So I try to be aware of the privilege I bear, as white, able-bodied, unambiguously sexed (most days ;-)) middle-class and vaugely normal, because I know that it regularly functions to reproduce hegemonic formations of subjectivity—both my own, those of others like me, and worst of all, those not. I try to remember that it is only because of the generosity of others that I can be, speak, write, shower, love, read, laugh, walk down the street, feel, touch, cry, blog. Others are, therefore I am… Therein lies my ‘personal reasons’ for wanting to be politically ‘involved’ in working against homogenisation—against racialisation, for example, and for the ‘rights’ (for want of a way way better, less liberal, term) of POC, amongst very very many others. I am only because others are generous. My denial of that fact is not just theft, not just ungenerous; that is privilege.
July 13, 2007
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under reading
EDTIME reading while I was away was Daylight by Elizabeth Knox. My mum fell in love with The Vintner’s Luck (along with a fair few other people, it would seem) a few years ago, and bought Daylight in a fit of ‘oughta’s a while ago, then passed it on to me when she decided that other, more official and work-related reading came first. This post is going to contain spoilers galore, so if you’re thinking you might read it, consider this fair warning!
I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but an off-kilter vampire story bound up with hagiography (the study of saint’s lives) and Catholicism in the south of France, border-crossing into Italy wasn’t it. Yes, Knox certainly isn’t ashamed of playing up to the invested and seductive—I mean, c’mon, the South of France?—but her writing sets her work apart from trashier takes that appear to share themes: it is quite lovely, and she has an eye for careful description and metaphor so specific it cajoles imagination along vividly.
I’ve been intrigued by vampire stories for a while now. Actually, I think it was Sue-Ellen Case who drew me most forcefully—or perhaps just less guiltily—into an appreciation of the vampiric, with her seminal (or so it seemed to me at the time, anyway!) essay, “Tracking the Vampire,” differences 1991. She drew out the queerness of the figure of the vampire, demonstrating their otherness, their life/death border-breaching, their genderfuck logics. (I can’t help it: I’m going to have to write a belated response to Joe Kugelmass’ post on BtVS and sexuality. No kink? Truly? I mean, I know da Buff is a strait-laced young miss, but I don’t think when she says “How can I let him [Spike] do that to me?” to Tara she’s angsting about letting him bring her tea and dumplings! More later.)
Daylight‘s vampires are Lou Ila (translates as the Island), Grazide, Dawn, Tom and Martine. Brian ‘Bad’ Phelan (there’s an Emerson-like relevance to the names, methinks) swiftly takes centre-stage. An Aussie (I think—p’raps a Kiwi), his life has been shaped by risk, from the moment when he stepped off the viewing platform his classmates were trampolining on, just in time to see almost all of them plunge to their deaths in a chasm, through his love of caving, and his being blown up while trying to disarm a bomb (his ‘work’). He’s fascinated when he helps retrieve a corpose of a woman whose hair darkens from blonde at the roots to brown at the tips, a ‘dye job’ (he thinks) he’s only seen on one other woman, a woman whose very existence he doubts, who surreally rescued him from a cave in flood, and bit him.
But the bites are one of the most intriguing images of the book. Rather than your usual elongated eye-teeth, these vampires have spines in the roofs of their mouths; when about to feed (and there’s more than a little of the sense of the erotic to this, as we’ll see), the spines rise up from flat like a porcupine’s. Vampires lisp before they bite, and a kiss tends to hook the prey in more ways than one, and leads to a swollen, perforated tongue of the beloved. When they’re playing, they graze these spines against flesh. Almost like mosquitoes injecting anti-coagulant, they inject… well, straight-up physical pleasure, basically, making their bitten languid, aroused, and pliable. Their tongues then act as little more than a channel, directing the blood straight down their throats. One of the most vivid scenes in the book in when Dawn returns to Bad engorged (she likes to give men found on park benches, in clubs and on doorsteps blow jobs, then bite their thighs as they come), she is rosy and fat with blood, so that even the sweat that slips from her pores is pink with blood, and when Bad pinches her chubby earlobe, he can feel her pulse.
But there’s another beginning. Father Daniel Octave is one of the researchers used for assessing the suitability of a particular holy person for beatification. His research led to the beatification of ‘Blessed Martine Raimondi,’ who when her people were being persecuted, led them through a cave to safety; Daniel himself had doubts, because Martine Dardo is the spitting image of the saint, who was meant to be a celibate nun. Nonetheless, she was beatified. When Martine Dardo calls him at dawn one day on a mobile she has given him with strict instructions to keep it charged, sounding angst-ridden and guilty and like she’s about to drown herself, he is caught back into the web.
Much of the book plays out like a detective story: who is Martine? Who is the corpse Bad helped to retrieve? Why did she die? Who is Eve? Dawn? Why did Jacques Palombo, whose survival was the second miracle of the Blessed Martine, wind up decapitated? What’s Tom up to? Will Bad stick with Dawn? But it’s far more complicated than just that; and part of the reason for this is the nature of the virus.
Because that’s how Knox plays it. The Virus. It is, of course, one of the reasons for the vivacity of vampire myth (and especially currently). Intriguingly, this virus multiplies slowly, replacing and mimicking the ‘natural’ cells of the body but in an immortalised form, until eventually, one is all virus. (Indeed, they may not need to feed on blood once this immortalisation has occurred.) The virus, however, is slow; consequently, history is made accordian-like and stretchy: it is only old vampires that can ‘turn’ a human. This means that vampires cannot (by themselves) turn someone that they already knew as a human, and creates a kind of nest of older and younger vampires, dependent upon each other. After he turned Dawn, for example, Lou Ila took her away to Corsica because he knew that she would be unable to resist attempting to turn her twin Eve, and that that blood-letting would exhaust and eventually kill Eve. And Ila feeds off Dawn to avoid infecting anyone else, while she borrows his knowledge about how to survive in the world (boltholes and cave systems and such).
Lou Ila himself was turned by Grazide as part of her affair with Chambord (the author of the Provencal story ‘Daylight’ that Eve translated from sometime in the 1700s (I think!)). While deep in the sensuality of their love, he (Chambord) would not allow her to bite him, knowing that he would then become a vampire. So she sought out young Lou Ila, and turned him, knowing that Ila could bite Chambord without infecting him, and Ila is made to play the part of a… well, I could be crude and say strap-on… but he’s her tool for sharing the headiness of her venom with her lover. And of course the line between tool and threesome fuzzes out in the ecstasy of Ila’s biting and being bitten.
I think, in the end, that this is where the seductiveness of the story lies: thick with imagery—the fierce bodiliness of the relationships between the vampires and the humans, combined with an dense, intense sense of the locatedness, the history and life, of each character and the ways they tangle. Lou Ila, for example, silent and pale, seeks to turn Eve because he fears forgetting Provencal, his mother tongue, and wants her to help him remember. Dawn, already carelessly sensual as a human, is not old enough to turn whoever she desires; she tries to manipulate Ila into turning her new lover, Bad, by forcing him to watch her draining him in ways that Bad finds it hard to mind. Tom Hilxen, a charming, detached biographical researcher, becomes a creepy vampire who drugs his prey, then inserts a cannula for the easy, distant quenching of a thirst—and so he can watch them die. Martine Dardo—the Blessed Martine, of course, turned by Ila in a complex relationship begun with him leading her and her peoples to safety: ‘I prayed and God sent me a devil’—fantasizes that her soul has risen out of the cells of her body slowly, bit by bit, as the virus consumes her; and she brings her religious mortification of the flesh to bear, starving until she kills herself in the sunrise in horror at becoming old enough to infect. Daniel Octave’s difficult childhood and empty control born of his religiosity lead him both to play detective and to fail to recognise his own trauma when Tom makes him his prey. Bad Phelan’s continual replay of his lunge off the collapsing viewing platform and into life make him throw himself into Dawn’s arms, even as his skin goes pale and loose, his eyes develop purple-blue pouches and he cannot walk for an hour without feeling exhausted.
The richness of the writing, the richness of the sensuality evoked, the richness of the setting and its history all lend themselves to a seductive book. I’m still seduced, so it’s no use trying to get disinterest out of me; the only question now is, am I old enough to infect you…?
July 12, 2007
ROBABLY every man, woman, child and their dogs are linking to this post, but what the hey, I laughed, I wanna share…
July 11, 2007
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under Difference
UCH belated, I’m afraid, (or is it? Blog time is so very odd) but here it is: a sketch of Levinas’ conception of an ethical response to suffering. I’ll keep it brief; the binding-together of Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and Cassell will have to wait, I’m afeared. I’ve used this theory as a critique of medicalisation in the thesis (a bit crudely, so I have to rethink that section), but it also plays a role in the later work I do on various kinds of difference (disability, intersex, ‘ugliness’, trans, shortness, ‘BIID’ (in scary marks coz this is the pathologisation of an identity which has already called itself ‘wannabe’-ness), dwarfism, just to mention a few (did I mention this thing is probably going to have to be sliced and diced before I hand it in?). More on suffering stuff and that later. Admittedly, I screw a bit with the semi-and-questionable distinction between alterity and otherness/difference (corporeal difference for my concerns, but Levinas’ a bit chary of this kind specificity, I think) in Levinas, but that’s something I’m all good with, really, for reasons I’ll go into. (Besides, I gather that Bernasconi, amongst others, thinks that difference/otherness and alterity are already linked in Levinas. My jury’s out but in strong debate.)
So. Last time I demonstrated that in the other (the face of the other, actually, but now we’re just getting technical!) there is (damn that copula) a trace of alterity; that which is absolutely and completely other to me. In fact, Levinas argues that just as the other is fundamentally not me, fundamentally irreducible to me, so too is his/her suffering. The suffering of the other is completely other to me. This means that any attempt to grasp the other’s suffering, to place myself in his/her shoes must inevitably fail. Worse, because this seeks to make the other’s experience comprehensible only through my own, it is unethical: it attempts to reduce, often even efface, the alterity of the other’s suffering. This is what I’m going to call (again all contemporary usage, and based solely on the etymology because of what’s to come), empathy (from em, in, and pathy, feeling/suffering (do you think the Ancient Greeks had a completely different structuration of emotion? I mean, really, using ‘feeling’ and ‘suffering’ interchangeably seems such a peculiar move to us now!) Empathy attempts to deny the difference between self and other, the very same difference that enables the ethical relation and thus the production of the subject (and let’s not forget all that comes after that: all knowledge, meaning, world…) In denying that difference, one denies the other, and the other comes first. Denying another’s suffering (which happens quite a bit, really) denies their alterity and my dependence upon them. Just as bad, I think, is the medical flattening of suffering into pathology, attempting to thematise it. One can’t know the other, nor their suffering; not fully. But that’s an entirely other post.
So what, then, is the ethical response to otherness? This is actually really important, because the response to the suffering other is the origin of sociality. That is, the call of the other to the subject (the pre-originary one) is a call from ‘height and destitution.’ The other’s suffering is that call, and so all possibility of sociality is premised upon it and my relation—my response—to it. How do I respond without thematising?
Levinas’ answer is compassion. Com-passion; suffering-with. (Theoretically this is etymologically equivalent to sympathy, but the ‘sym’ there has too many association with syn-thesis for me to be happy with it, so I’m glad he chose otherwise, even if it’s only because sympathetique (sp? tis regularly shortened to ‘sympa,’ so I hear) mean s’nice’ in French). In suffering because the other suffers, alongside but without seeking to replace their experience with my own, an affective rather than a thematised experience, I offer the possibility of its alleviation. The reason for this is complex, but interesting. Suffering is, as we saw last time, fundamentally isolating. It turns the subject in on his/her self, breaking the ethical relation upon which the subject, meaning, the world is premised. This breakdown, then, is the breakdown of the world. When the other suffers, it is not merely an experience alongside any other, because the very terms by which they are a subject who could experience anything have been breached. There is absolutely no way for the other to make any sense—or anything else—of their suffering. This is what makes it suffering, this utter passivity, passivity beyond passivity (that is, beyond the antithesis of activity).
In suffering-with the suffering other, then, I enact the ethical relation, thereby prising open this closed-down non-subjectivity, creating a space which “opens them to the realm of the interhuman.” In this opening out, the pre-originary relation comes back into ‘being’; and with it meaning, the world, may come to be for them once again. This is ethics, and the ethical response. And according to Levinas, it is my ethos, my dwelling, my way of being; I am only because I am responsible, responsibility; only because I am compassionate, because I am compassion, because I am suffering-with.
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