Still Reading: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2nd Attempt)

I swear this book will end me. Six months in and some days I read the first sentences of a paragraph and realise it’s the same paragraph I’ve been on the whole week. And it’s a Sunday. I’m having trouble reading books at the moment anyway. Fiction is out, because I’m in fiction-writing mode and the novels I’ve started are either dissatisfying for where I’m at, or feel like they’d influence my own writing. Non-fiction, well, yes, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, we are still shouting, “Fucking yes!” when we do manage to read a new paragraph (usually on the toilet because that seems to be where a balance is currently found), but I have no cash for the pile of non-fiction waiting for me to pick up. Lemme tell you how long-term poverty as a function of even a moderately ok life as a trans woman / trans feminine person / transsexual is a very real life. (I weirdly want to start using that ‘transsexual’ word again to fuck with cis queers and their ‘gender is cultural’ bullshit. Petty is as petty does.)

So, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, or First Class Spivak, because someone said she only flies first class, and even if that’s not true, I admire that image of her, and she is so so very first class. I keep reading and wanting to underline and quote, and as I haven’t blogged this month, here we go, one quote at least. from The Double Bind Starts to Kick In, p.108:

This much is at least clear: to imagine or figure the other as another self, you need to engage the moving edge of culture as it leaves its traces in the idiom. To reduce it to language—to semiotic systems that are organised as language—was a structuralist dream. But at least, whatever the subject-position of the structuralist-investigator there was a rigour in the enterprise. Its tempo was different from the impatience of a universalist feminism re-coding global capital. From existing evidence, it is clear that individual-rights or universalist feminists infiltrate the gendering of the global South to recast it hastily into the individual rights model. They simply take for granted that colonised cultures are inevitably patriarchal. I will not enter into historical speculation. I will take shelter in a figure—the figure or topos, that in postcoloniality the past as the unburied dead calls us. This past has not been appropriately mourned, nor been given the rites of the dead, as the other system brought in by colonialism imposed itself. There was no continuous shedding of a past into unmarked modernity.

Reading: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2nd Attempt)

I started reading this a couple of years ago, which might have already been my second attempt. It’s been giving me disappointed looks from my ‘currently reading’ pile ever since. But, having successfully reminded myself how to read dense theory again, while spending months on Edward Said’s Orientalism earlier this year, I thought it was time to suck it up and get back into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. The problem is, she’s so fucking brilliant, I’ll read a sentence and spend half an hour just thinking it through.

On that, then, I decided to just quote some of these bangers. Ending the Preface, on page xvi:

Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.

Starting the Introduction, page 1:

Globalization takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control.

Next on page 2:

The most pernicious presupposition today is that globalization has happily happened in every aspect of our lives. Globalization can never happen to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being, except insofar as it always was implicit in its vanishing outlines. Only an aesthetic education can continue to prepare us for this […]

Quoting Hanna Arendt on page 3:

“The general future of mankind has nothing to offer individual life, whose only certain future is death.”

Page 4:

We want the public sphere gains and the private sphere constraints of the Enlightenment; yet we must also find something relating to “our own history” to counteract the fact that the Enlightenment came, to colonizer and colonized alike, through colonialism, to support a destructive “free trade,” and that top-down policy breaches of Enlightenment principles are more the rule than exception.

I spent most of breakfast on that page 1 Introduction quote, swearing at its magnificence, meme-ing Where is the lie? tru dat, and that’s the T, and realising it’s gonna take me about 2 years to read this at this pace.

Reading: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

Around the time I started dancing, living in Auckland, shortly before moving to Australia, I fell in with a rough crowd of philosophers and academics. Or rather, I skirted the edges of their world in Auckland and then in Melbourne as they en masse crossed the ditch; and then they were students, working their way through Masters and Phds. As with almost everyone, I lost contact, lives diverging, names hazily remembered.

Perhaps I’m inventing a fictional history, perhaps also the bright memories I have are of the enthusiasm of first discoveries rather than any significant shift in paradigms, nonetheless there was a raw thrill for new philosophy and theory. There were names that have stuck with me: Deleuze, Butler. I tried on Serres, Derrida, Kristeva, Iragaray; newer names still, like offspring of those first names, Rosi Braidotti, Keith Ansell-Pearson, Slavoj Žižek; felt like a fifth columnist going to lectures on Habermas and Lyotard. Perhaps it was because Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus had only recently been translated into English — by recently I mean this mob were the first generation of university students to be exposed to it, and it was certainly far outside the mainstream of university curricula; and Butler’s Gender Trouble was similarly new and far out.

Anyway, I found myself in Sydney one summer, in Gleebooks, and there on the shelves were both 1000 Plateaus and Gender Trouble. I bought both without a second thought. I read them over and over. (There was another book there, I forget the name, but it was about trans identities, I remember the rush of finding that, reading possibilities for living. I mention that so as not to compartmentalise these interwoven moments, one side joy, the other, shame.)

As with seeing Frankfurt Ballet and knowing my life belonged in dance (I still trust that decision however precarious my life has been because of it), Bridget telling me to read Deleuze and Butler is one of those monumental instances in my life. I’d call it an epiphany, but like the word ‘genius’ she’d probably hate it. Sitting in Black Cat Café in Fitzroy one day she also said, “You’re lucky. You get to live what we only theorise about.” So now I’m doubly lucky ’cos I live and theorise this shit.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to other words and names from then: Subaltern, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. Perhaps it was only these couple of people from this small group who were really into all this, and a proper history of ’90s New Zealand and Australian academic life would barely rate them a footnote. For me though, I got booted onto a course I’m still riding the momentum of. Curiously, I never read Spivak then, or never the way I did Butler and Deleuze. Spivak seemed and seems to be everywhere, when I see her name it’s like an old friend, or a friend of a friend I’ve heard so much about.

I wonder how common this is, to be able to trace vast paths and directions through a life back to single moments. Seeing Frankfurt Ballet, Bridget telling me to read Butler and Deleuze; more recently maybe, Erik telling me to read Caroline Walker Bynum. I’m sure there are others, though those moments on the cusp of teens and twenties have determined much of my life.

So I’ve returned to that name: Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. I’ve been reading around migration, human rights, Islam, colonialism, these subjects in Europe, Seyla Benhabib, Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Ruth Mandel, Katherine Pratt Ewing, and more recently with the current precarious state of democracy and human rights in Europe having a need to focus on this. I’m not sure why Spivak’s name occurred to me, maybe I read about her somewhere, or just decided she was the right choice for now.

I went through all her published works before deciding on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. There’s other works that are probably more essential Spivak, ones that I remember from student days, but this was published in 2012 and I thought reading her newer stuff would be a pertinent choice.

What’s it like then? It’s a well proper slab of a book. Almost 600 pages (about 100 of which are notes) with wide spaces for marginalia, and a small typeface that’s making my eyes apprehensive. I started reading it a week ago, then went off to read some fiction, so I might have to start it again. I’ve read the preface, where she describes each essay in the collection as “looking for a distracted theory of the double bind.” She finishes with, “Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.”

I think it’s common when reading philosophy or critical theory to read people without having actually read them. Quotes, lengthy discussions, analyses, criticisms, notes, all these over time can result in a feeling for an author, a familiarity, at the very least enough to know if I actually want to read them or not. I can’t think of another writer who’s been as large in my consciousness as Spivak without me actually reading them. I’m also desperate for direction at the moment. Spivak, writing on post-colonialism, globalisation, and most importantly aesthetics (I’m reminded of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory here), somehow it feels right to be reading Spivak now. As an artist making political work (like there’s any art possible without being political?) maybe to quote the back cover: “aesthetic education is the last available instrument for implementing global justice.”

Reading: Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen — Generic Singularity

Some months ago (Which tells you how much I’ve slipped on blogging what I’m reading), I was in Saint George’s picking up something or other and talking with Paul, and found myself holding a rather heavy slab of pages bound in starkly impressive yellow. A book on the philosophy of aesthetics, art, and artists by a Berlin artist, Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen. It wasn’t so expensive as far as heavy philosophical publications go, so I took it home. I’d been reading a bit on aesthetics at the time, so it seemed fitting.

I began reading it last night, after finishing with Hannu Rajaniemi, and did the usual “peruse the index and bibliography” finding plenty of the current philosophical idols, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, even Kristeva, Heidegger, Kant, Merleau-Ponty … Lacan … fucking Freud … ok, off to the table of contents then.

For a very long time I’ve had a simple, effective method to elucidate if an author is worth reading or is in fact full of shit. Germain Greer and Margaret Atwood are full of shit. Oh but their blahblah is so good and important and they are important writers, nay, National Treasures! They also happen to have made some extremely transphobic statements in the past that if they’d made such remarks about gays, lesbians, Jews, any other group whom we all have an articulate understanding of how they are stigmatised in society, we would always mention this in the same breath, just as we do with, say, Wagner and his anti-semitism. Yet it was perfectly acceptable in ’70s and ’80s feminism to advocate genocide for transgender people (largely at that time referring to trans women), and despite vast change and improvement, especially in the last decade, the level of stupidity emanating from people who should know better is tiresomely common. Hence my need for a simple, effective method of working out if a writer should be taken seriously, or if they’re ignorant, dangerous bigots: Has said person made transphobic statements or remarks, yes/no?

Which brings me to 2. OWN BEING. A. The intimacy of own being. 2. The monstrous body. 1. The sexual plane. of Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen Generic Singularity. ‘The monstrous body’. I have a little yawn. It’s as large a cliché – and misunderstanding – as ‘gender is performance’. A quote from Spinoza. I like Spinoza a lot. “No one has thus far determined what the body can do.” The lazy thing to do now in philosophy is to waste a few trees chanting ‘monstrous, monstrous’ until it forms a fetish in the utterer’s throat and one can feel all scatologically ‘edgy’. It’s become vanishingly rare in the current time of queer philosophy for any body that in some small way seems to jar against the claimed homogeneous norm to not be named monstrous and thus achieve awesomeness. My yawn at Spinoza and ‘monstrous’, and the conspicuous lack of female authors in the bibliography (around ten in total on fifteen pages of bibliography – or one for each Heidegger work cited) … well, we can see where this is going.

Page 65: “A sub-phenomenon is the question of transgendering.” I let out a “What the fuck!” right there. What exactly the fuck, Asmund, is ‘transgendering’? Oh, wait, let me continue! “These are instances where a man feels like a woman or a woman feels like a man and pursues this feeling to the point of altering his or her body through surgery, hormone treatments, name-change and clothing-change.” Which is where I put this waste of paper down and fight back the urge to spit. It’s the cis equivalent of mansplaining. (He then goes on to bizarrely conflate gender identity with sexuality, and later claims that neuroscience can differentiate male and female brains. I laugh a little at the mediocrity.)

I have no idea where he got the word transgendering from, but it’s not in common use on any of the queer, feminist, trans, anthropological, journalistic, human rights (and so on) websites and blogs I read, nor in any serious literature I can recall in around two decades of reading in this area. It does seem to be more associated with anti-trans sentiments, either of a right-wing or radical feminism perspective, which I think wasn’t the kind of ‘monstrous’ Asmund was aiming for.

The succinct point here is Asmund doesn’t know what he’s talking about by any reasonable measure when it comes to writing about transgender (bodies, issues, identities, legal and medical matters etc) and has merely co-opted the lives of transgender people of which he knows nothing about to push his own ‘edgy’, ‘radical’ philosophical aesthetic. This is bullshit, wrapped in academic language and propped up with two thousand years of western philosophers. And if he’s so wilfully completely incompetent when writing about trans people, we have to assume his incompetence on everything else he’s written. There are many, many brilliant works written in philosophy, on aesthetics, on art, on identity. This isn’t one of them. This is a work full of shit.