There is a funny essay by the British novelist G. K. Chesterton entitled “Cheese” in his book Alarms and Discursions in which he humorously imagines writing a five-volume scholarly treatise entitled “The Neglect of Cheese in European Literature” because “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” even though ”cheese is the very soul of song.” One would probably never say that poop is the very soul of song — perhaps it is the very opposite, the material remainder of our fleeting mundane existence — but for several years I have been speculating about what it might be like to write a literary history of poop. To my knowledge, it has never been done, and far more than cheese (which has actually been written about extensively), poets and philosophers tend to avoid talking about their most basic daily function. I have not yet followed through on this project, but today, thanks to George Takei on FaceBook, I saw this hilarious comic of the Zen Kitties, meditating on their kitty litter box, and I was inspired to begin.
The image is reminiscent of the famous Zen rock gardens of Japan, the most famous of which is at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto. The joke observes the resemblence between these philosophical gardens and kitty litter boxes, and then speculates philosophically about the poop as a metaphor for the impermanence of our own existence, a well-known idea in Zen Buddhism. However, it also seems to enact the basic drama of poop — that we wish it (and all the uncomfortable detritus of our lives) would simply disappear, but actually it doesn’t. The false consciousness of this ideology is discussed by the world’s favorite Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in several of his books. In the movie Examined Life, which features nine influential contemporary philosophers speaking about the world while paripatetically walking around somewhere in that world, Zizek begins his presentation, significantly, at a dump. By doing so, he is suggesting that philosophy, if it is to be honest and ethical, should begin with our excrement and our trash.
Precisely the things we least want to talk about in polite society is what we must talk about if we are to address the most important problems of our time and if we are to understand ourselves. It is telling that we have constructed such elaborate architecture and political infrastructure for quickly removing our poop as far away from ourselves as possible so that we are able to go about our daily lives ignoring it as best we can. The Zen Kitties speculating on the total erasure of their poop actually mirrors, in an odd way, the way we humans behave towards our poop.
In no way do I want to make the argument that these Zen Kitties have anything to do with actual Zen philosophy and practice, which is very rigorous and tough. But it does have something to do with the popularized, somewhat self-indulgent version of Zen in America that can be found in books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. (And obviously, the title of my blog post is a play on Pirsig’s book.)
The popularized mystified version of Western Buddhism and new-age spirituality is also something Zizek has critiqued in various places in his writings, including his article on the new Star Wars movies and his essay “The Prospect of Radical Politics Today.” He jokes that the Western Zen ethos is the perfect articulation for the neoliberal ideology of ”late capitalism” and that if Max Weber were alive today, he would have written a sequel to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (written in 1904-1905) that might better address our twenty-first century world, and this sequel would be thusly titled “The Zen Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.” Zizek attacks this ideology which he sees as unethical false consciousness: ”Western Buddhism is such a fetish: it enables you fully to participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless this spectacle really is–what really matters to you is the peace of the inner self to which you know you can always withdraw.” This Zen Ethic (by which Zizek means the popularized Zen in Western culture, not actual Zen) pretends to be beyond politics precisely at moments when its practictioner is most enmeshed in a political world. Ironically, the typical mode of withdrawal today is not Zen’s spiritual withdrawal into an ethical selflessness, but hipster irony and an endless play of cultural referentiality.
What I love about the Zen Kitties is their meditation on one of the most profoundly difficult subjects of existence. The philosophical conclusion they draw from the cleaned kitty litter box is the impermanence of life. The more obvious question that they don’t ask, and that Zizek thinks we need to ask, is where did the poop go. However, even though the comic doesn’t ask Zizek’s question, the huge eyes of one of the kitties registers a surprise and an anxiety about the disappeared poop that is the comic counterpoint to the closed, meditative eyes of the other kitty. Both of these responses are two sides of the same condition — not our human condition, but a condition that is both animal and technological at the same time. The Zen Kitties’ imagination of the philosophical meaning of a pristine and stainless litter box, in a bizarre way it seems to me, mirrors our own twenty-first century global culture’s desire for a smooth and seemless world of production and consumption without consequences and without pollution, and it provokes laughter at the strangeness of our own impossible desire. The counterpoint to this desire can be found in one of my favorite children’s books, Everyone Poops by the Japanese author Taro Gomi, that beautifully explores both the naturalness as well as the humorous variety of pooping. It can also be found in one of my favorite essays on Japanese culture, Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which impishly delights in contrasting the poetic, meditative shadowy qualities of Japanese wooden toilets to the obsessively clean and white, antiseptic European toilets.
Anyways, so begins my critical inquiry into the literary history of poop.
For the past decade or more, colleges and universities around the country have been revising their curricula to include something that the administration likes to call “intercultural competency” (something I have written about twice before [here] and [here].) The idea is so prevalent that there is even a wikipedia article about it, as well as many textbooks such as this one [here] for majors in Communication, Elementary Education, Business-Management, and so on. The basic idea is that in the pluralistic, multicultural world in which we live today, college graduates are more likely to work with people of other races and people from other countries than ever before, and therefore colleges ought to prepare its students. To put it another way, the administration is catching up to what literature professors have been doing already for the past thirty years and to what the Civil Rights movement campaigned for half a century ago. Different colleges have implemented this requirement differently, some requiring just one class on the appreciation of difference, and others requiring two distinct classes, one on the subject of racial diversity within the United States and the other on international relations and cross-cultural dialogue. Both versions have their strengths and weaknesses, but those will not be the subject of my blog post today. Significantly, one of the most popular television shows of the past decade among the undergraduate population, The Office, devoted its second episode to the subject of intercultural competency. In this satirical comedy, the more the boss tried to be interculturally competent by instituting “diversity day” at the office, the more he exposed how incompetent and culturally insensitive he actually is. The show is more than just a parody of the impotence of badly managed intercultural competency; it is also symptomatic of the psychological anxiety many Americans still have about the issue. As Freud points out in his famous essay on jokes, it is that anxiety that makes the joke culturally resonant and makes us laugh, even though the joke typically displaces that anxiety onto something easier for the audience to deal with emotionally.
As the episode of The Office and Freud’s essay suggest, what might make a class on intercultural competency hard to teach – and even harder to institutionalize – is that it is not simply a set of information that the student must learn. Rather, it asks that the students come to terms with their selves – their biases, desires, privileges — some of which may be conscious, some of which may be unconscious. And as all my students in my introduction to theory are well aware, once the notion of the “self” is posited as an important dimension of the curriculum, then things get tricky. Often the course may enter uncomfortable territory not because the student is encountering a new, foreign culture (as many administrators wrongly believe), but actually because they are encountering uncomfortable things about themselves that they already know but don’t want to think about. For instance, ideally, we have all been taught that an equitable society for men and women of all colors and creeds is desirable, but at the same time we also recognize that this is not in fact the case and that there is a huge gap between the ideals of our society and its realities. Some of us may have privileges, opportunities, and good fortune that others don’t have. Everyone is aware of this gap, but few want to confront it. Notice that this discomfort has to do with a political and sociological difference, not a cultural one. Hence, the very conceptualization of “intercultural competency” is already a problematic displacement of a thorny political question onto a cultural schematic. In my view, the fact that many people naturally gravitate towards the familiar and avoid the unfamiliar isn’t enough to cause discomfort in intercultural competency classes; rather, what’s uncomfortable is the things about ourselves and our world that we are all too familiar with but would prefer not to take responsibility for.
Now, I don’t want to claim that intercultural competency is all about the psychology of the student, or that it’s all about the equally problematic psychology of the institution. Most of it is about the appreciation of different cultures along with the history of race relations and/or international relations, including histories of colonization and imperialism. Such is the manifest content of class work — the stuff one studies. However, the latent content of the class is its meaning for the self. And because I just taught my intro-to-theory class the essays of Freud, Lacan, and Derrida, I am deliberately using terminology from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams that distinguishes between the “manifest content” (or the stuff in the dream) and the “latent content” (or, what the stuff means.) In other words, the stuff on the syllabus for any class is naturally going to be primarily content about different cultures, ethnicities, races, etc., and there are hundreds of ways to approach this content that reflect political and methodological differences among faculty. However, regardless of the content, the impetus behind the syllabus, or the drive that motivates requiring it, is of course the actual relationship of the student not only to people of other cultures or races, but also the student’s understanding of his or her ethical understanding of self and other. In some ways, then, the latent content of the class is ethics and psychology, even though most of the manifest content may not be either ethics or psychology. There would seem to be a slippage between the manifest content (the study of culture, history, literature, etc.) and the latent content (ethics, psychology, etc.). When the slippage between multiple subjects is considered, it is easy to see why this is a hard curricular requirement to wrap one’s head around. The course slides between the academic subjects of history, literature, culture, psychology, ethics, etc. Moreover, always grounding this linked chain of subjects is another subject — the self or “I” (note the double meaning of “subject” here), what Freud calls the “ego.”
(A brief theoretical joke for those who have read Jacques Lacan’s ”Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” Please skip this parenthesis if you haven’t. Following the example of Lacan’s joke about the mathematical algorithm for Freudian psychology, we might give the variable subjects in the class a capital letter “S” for “Subject” and the variable stuff in the intercultural class a lower case “s” for stuff. Lacan’s algorithm for the relationship between language and the unconscious is that the function of the Signifier (S) is the relationship between the ego (I) and the signified (s), and we might jokingly say that the function of the Subject (S) is the relationship between the student’s’ ego and the stuff in the class. Consequently, whatever the variable Subjects (S) of the class are, their relationship to its various stuff (s) and therefore its very meaning in society is a function of ego, hahahaha, and this is why the Subject of a class on intercultural competency inevitably slides along a chain of Subjects, from culture to history to literature to political science to ethics to psychology, etc. In other words, in Derrida’s terms, the central point of intercultural competency is by definition absent and decentered along a signifying chain.)
Hence, if there is always a psychological component, whether or not this component is actually on the syllabus, I propose a psychoanalysis via Jacques Lacan. In his seminal essay, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Lacan argues that many pop psychologists mistakenly understand the unconscious id of Freud’s theory as instinctual drive. However, the unconscious is not instincts at all, but is in fact the aspects of our relationship to our own culture that we suppress and displace through complex symbols. His argument is long and difficult, but for the sake of this blog, I want to boil it down to three versions of the Cartesian cogito that Lacan explores. Following Lacan’s exploration of these three formulations, I will explore three versions of intercultural competency, each based on one of these formulas for the self’s relationship to critical thinking.
- I think therefore I am.
- I think where I am.
- I think where I am not; therefore I am where I do not think.
The first is the famous line “I think therefore I am.” Here the philosopher René Descartes explores our ability to doubt received wisdom and to question our very existence, but ultimately resolves this doubt by positing a thinking subject that exists. There is something wonderfully appealing and universal to this idea, and somewhat radical for his own time since it places the burden of rational and ethical thought on the individual subject rather than on God. The upshot for an intercultural competency class is that the students are given the tools to think critically about their own culture. Hence, the goal is to transcend the arbitrariness and randomness of culture instead of wrongly believing that your own culture is in some way normal or universal. What many philosophers have criticized, however, is the idea of a self-contained individual subject that is doing all this thinking. Most of us are aware that our thoughts respond to external stimuli, are derived from language that we have no control over, etc. Hence, in order to situate the subject in his or her environment or cultural context, Lacan humorously suggests a revision of the statement to “I think where I am.”
What are the implications of this second formulation for intercultural competency? Well, the first version implies that all human beings are rational thinking beings. There is something wonderfully universal about this, and much of the ideology of modern Europe was the believe in the universality of modern science and human rights. However, there are many challenges to this ideology. Most of the “rights” encoded in our Constitution and the United Nations Charter are individual rights. However, people don’t live alone; they live in communities, which has caused the United Nations to add “cultural” and “community” rights to its manifest. We are not just individual thinking subjects; we are also members of specific cultural locations. Hence, Lacan’s second versions of the cogito draws attention to the goals of intercultural competency typically set forth by college administrations: (1) to appreciate other cultures, and (2) to appreciate that one comes from a culture oneself. In other words, one may think that there is a “normal” way of doing things and a “normal” or “universal” way of understanding rights and responsibilities, or one may also think that it’s possible for a rational individual to transcend the arbitrariness of culture, but in fact our very way of thinking is conditioned by the circumstances in which we happen to live. To put it another way, when we think, we think with the various tools for thinking that our culture gives to us. And this is what Lacan means when he suggests that we think where we are. We think through our culture.
However, Lacan is unsatisfied with this for all sorts of reasons. First and foremost, it’s not true. We don’t think where we are. Culture is not so deterministic, and ethical values are not so relativistic. In fact, when we think of ourselves, we always do so in relation to other people and other spaces. For instance, men both desire and fear women. Our imagination of ourselves is always in relation to desires and fears, and an important contribution of psychoanalytic theory is that we don’t simply fear difference; we also desire it. If we think of the earliest examples of classic literature, they are always imagining the self in far-away locations: e.g., Thomas More’s Utopia, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Daniel Defoe’s Robison Crusoe. The more popular example of James Bond movies take this utopian imagination even further as the secret agent Bond always expresses himself by seducing exotic, foreign women. Even the Bible begins by defining humanity in terms of a lost paradise. So, the notion of intercultural competency that suggests we simply appreciate where we come from and where others come from is somewhat impotent and wrongheaded. More dangerously, it is also deterministic as it assumes that a culture determines the way we think. Against such a deterministic understanding of culture, we can appreciate that even though two people may come from the same culture, they may also differ from each other in all sorts of ways. The human imagination is broader and more interesting than simply one’s cultural location. It is not simply a reflection of where one comes from. Those who posit a version of intercultural competency along the lines of “they have a culture and I have a culture and I must appreciate both” are not just factually wrong in really obvious ways; they are wrong in a way that is horribly unethical.
Hence, we have two paradigms: one is Descartes’s individual rational subject who doubts everything but seems unaware of the role cultural difference plays in his or her own thinking, and the other is overly deterministic in its premise that we simply think the way our culture teaches us to. Neither of these are satisfactory, and neither gets us very far. How do we reconcile these two very different iterations of the cogito – of how we think and how we recognize ourselves thinking?
To answer this question, Lacan concludes with this version of the cogito: I think where I am not; therefore, I am where I do not think.
This formula, I believe, provides a more useful and factually accurate understanding of cultural difference. On a very simple level, it helps students discover that stereotypes are not just incorrect understandings of others. Rather, it helps students understand how stereotypes are expressions of the cultural generating the stereotype — its desires, its fears, etc. In other words, we understand ourselves through metaphorical figurations of others. To give you a recent illustration of this, one author has angrily argued against something he calls White Savior Industrial Complex. This is a perfect example of the how Americans feel good about themselves by saving Africans, which is a feel-good situation that first requires that the Americans understand themselves in relation to a stereotype of Africans. For another example, I have written about Oromo ethnic culture in America and in Ethiopia with Lacan’s theory in mind [here]. Another example might be the popularity of “gangsta rap” in mostly white, middle-class suburbs. In addition, on a more fundamental, epistemological level, Lacan anticipates the work of recent philosophers of science and philosophers of mind that question the mind-body dualism of Descartes and assert that our mind thinks not only with our body but also with our body’s physical relationship to the world.
Therefore, if thinking always happens in relation to a world, then in order to understand ourselves, and in order to become ethical individuals, we need to understand the world, and here we come full circle back to the very impetus behind intercultural competency in the first place — the world we live in. In other words, the stuff (lower case “s”). However, it’s not enough simply to study the stuff, because how we imagine the stuff is crucial. In other words, the Subject (upper case “S”) directs our understanding of the stuff (s). If Lacan is right, that we understand ourselves through our rather metaphorical imagination of others, then the question of how to teach the psychological component of intercultural competency is key.
What I think is cool about Lacan’s formula for the relationship between thinking and selfhood is that it opens up the slipperiness of identity, the possibility of change, the role of the imagination, the necessity of self-criticism, and the recognition that we are in essence incomplete beings. Think about it. Why do we both fear and desire others? Because we are at root dissatisfied with ourselves. We are incomplete. Hence the metaphor for marriage “better half” and “she completes me.” Intercultural competency is, in part, a quest for completeness and a meaningful life.
In conclusion, and to return to the episode of The Office about the bumbling attempt to overcome stereotypes, we can see the boss articulating his own identity through various personas — Chris Rock, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. In other words, he believes he is leading his office to become interculturally competent because he is endorsing black celebrities, but his imagination of himself through them is precisely what is offensive because his starting place is the assumption of difference and the fetishization of specific tropes (metonymies) of that difference. The show clearly indicates that this is foolish, but unfortunately, the show does not give us any positive indication of what might be better. The show does not provide any space for individuals to actually have a real conversation about difference. In order for a class about difference to be meaningful, the starting point needs to be the extent to which we are interdependent, incomplete individuals. On a very basic level, I rely on others for food, clothing, shelter, knowledge, culture, etc. Where does it all come from and how does it move? Why don’t I want to think about the conditions in which my T-shirts were made and the extent to which my identity depends on the teenage girl in Mexico who made it. That’s the starting point.
Turkish Ladies, English Liberty: Toward a Psychoanalysis of Difference in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters
In last week’s blog post, I used Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of signs to analyze the recent internet buzz about women in Iran studying to become ninjas. If you haven’t already seen the video about it, click [here] or check out my earlier post. In that post, I argued that clothing functions like a linguistic signifier of cultural difference. Essentially the Islamic hijab (headscarf or headscarf and veil) are usually understood by Europeans and Americans today not only as a symbol for how Muslims are different, but also as a symbol for how Muslim women are oppressed by Islam. The connotations are so powerful that a simple piece of clothing is overloaded (or “overdetermined” to use Freud’s concept that my class just read about) with all sorts of meaning, some of which, I argue, is prejudicial and symptomatic of American anxieties. We might compare this overdetermination in our culture to the sort of overdetermination that Freud sees in dreams, in which the various metaphors (condensation) and metonymies (displacement) are symptomatic of our daily anxieties, psychological repressions, etc.
Coincidentally, just a few days after writing that post, I happened to read some of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters that she wrote three centuries ago in 1717 when her husband was an ambassador to Turkey. This is my first time ever reading her work, and I regret not having read it before. She is very witty and clever, and her published letters about her experiences in Turkey were quite popular at the time and are now usually included in anthologies of English literature. Montagu’s lengthy descriptions of the Turkish baths reveal a fascination with the idea of Muslim women in one of the most powerful empires in the eighteenth century lounging around naked in each other’s company. The image is one of freedom and comfort, and she contrasts this image to the complex stays and corsets of English clothing, which she compares to a “machine” that has her “locked up.” In another letter on “Turkish Dress,” she again contrasts her own uncomfortable clothing to the more comfortable dress. Now, here is what I find fascinating, and I’m going to quote it in full.
‘Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have, no woman of what rank soever being permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that covers her face all but her eyes and another that hides the whole dress of her head and hangs half way down her back…. You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch of follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery…. The great ladies seldom let their gallants know who they are, and ‘its so difficult to find it out that they can very seldom guess at her name they have corresponded with above half a year together…. Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their husbands, those ladies that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with ‘em upon a divorce with an addition which he is obliged to give ‘em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire. The very Divan pays a respect to ‘em, and the Grand Signore himself, whenever a Bassa is executed, never violates the privileges of the harem, which remains unsearched entire to the widow.
You can also find the whole passage on [this website]. What is interesting to me is how her eighteenth-century imagination of the hijab is exactly the opposite of the American and European imagination in the twenty-first century. She sees it as liberating, whereas the American media today sees it as oppressive. What do we make of this total reversal of meaning?
Montagu is, I suspect, using the idea of Turkish difference to launch a feminist critique of English society. One may doubt her assessment of how free Turkish women actually were, and she seems to enjoy the scandalousness of the point that she is making. Few Muslims would agree with her sense of freedom in terms of the ability to commit acts of infidelity undetected. But the reality of the daily lives of English or Turkish people is not the purpose of my analysis, nor even, perhaps, of Montagu’s own intention in writing those letters, an intention we can only guess at anyway. (In my view, and in my experience in Japan, the Czech Republic, Kenya, and Ethiopia, people are usually just people, and the hype about cultural difference is generally overblown and potentially dangerous. Freedom and unfreedom, wealth and poverty — these are things that exist in every society I’ve ever encountered, especially my own.) Rather, I am interested in the fantasy and in the use of a rather utopian representation of freedom to critique the oppression of one’s homeland. My own interpretation of Montagu’s letters is that her idea exposes the ways in which English women are not free, considering that they are subject to so much abuse and disrespect. The style of clothing, for Montagu, is a signifier of the abuse and disrespect in English society versus the freedom and respect in Turkish society.
The thing about her eighteenth-century letters that made me think of the twenty-first century video about ninjas in Iran is the notion that the headscarf and veil are instruments of stealth and invisibility, and that this is powerful. After all, ninjitsu is the art of invisibility. What does it mean for both the 18th-century letters and the 21st-century video to understand a woman’s liberty in terms of her ability to be invisible? This is a curious notion indeed. If we think of Freud’s work on dreams and Jacques Lacan’s work on the very language we use to describe our social relations, then we begin to detect the ways in which gender is a product of signifiers — in this case, clothing, but as Saussure and Lacan also argue, signifiers organized by a logic of difference. Hence, the meaning of the signifiers ”men” and “women” is the logic of their difference, and this committment to such a difference means that we never actually “see” just the person. We always see the person in terms of these culturally loaded signifiers. A woman is already “invisible” in the sense that her real objective self exists behind a cloud of language and culture. Montagu’s desire is for her own invisibility, but this desire paradoxically is symptomatic of the fact that she actually already feels invisible. It is a curious thing to desire that which you already are, or have, and this is the curious nature of the human psyche. She already feels invisible because English men neither understand nor want to understand her as a person with a brain. This is what Lacan means when he suggests “there is no such thing as woman.” He doesn’t mean that individual women don’t exist. He means that the notion of “woman” is a culturally loaded idea. Ralph Ellison made a similar point about African-Americans in his famous novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, where white people do not really “see” black people. Instead, they only see projected images of their own fears and desires. Likewise, the symbolism of the Turksish baths, harem, and hijab all metaphorically mean a condition of invisibility. Montagu’s celebration of that invisibility displaces her anxiety about feeling invisible and disempowered all the time already onto a more empowering form of invisibility. For her in the eighteenth century, this was the hijab. For us today, it is the ninja, whose clothing style is curiously similar to the hijab in many ways, as I argued in my previous blog post.
This past week, the internet was buzzing with news of Iran’s secret army of “deadly ninja women.” It sounds like something straight out of the plot of a James Bond movie, in which the world’s favorite “global hero” would have to seduce the deadly but also sexy ninja Muslim girl and save the planet from nuclear holocaust. The Washington Post imagined director Quentin Tarantino taking on this seemingly made-for-cinema topos. Of course, Iran has no such “army” of secret sexy soldiers who are experts in the art of invisibility. Rather, this is merely a club sport, like so many club sports for men and women around the world. In the United States today, thousands of women take kickboxing classes, and thousands more take pole dancing. If we can imagine Hollywood making a movie in which James Bond or some other international man of mystery falls in love with an Iranian ninja woman, can we also imagine Iran’s well-regarded movie industry making an action thriller with an Iranian secret agent seducing an American ex-cheerleader in order to prevent the world from another American-instigated war in the Middle East? The producers of the film would be sitting around a table in Tehran debating whether to make that character a kickboxer or a pole dancer.
What I want to argue here, since my theory class is just now beginning its unit on theories about language and signs, is that this video perfectly illustrates Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous point about the relationship between the signifier and the signified being constituted by a logic of difference. In this case, the signifier is the veil that has become such a politically loaded symbol of Islam, but is, of course, also an essential feature of the Japanese art of ninjitsu. Before I go on, please check out the video of Iran’s ninja women that has gone viral on YouTube.
Now that’s badaaassss!!!
There is a lot one can say about this video, but the point I want to make is about the nature of signs. One of the arguments of the structuralist linguistics presented be Ferdinand de Saussure is that language does not merely refer to things. Rather, language is a system constituted by difference. As human subjects, we enter a system of language that we come to understand even if we have never seen the things that the words refer to. Consequently, if the system of language pre-exists our experience of things, and if meaning is derived not from the thing itself but from the principle of difference, then we might begin to suspect that language affects how we see the world.
The particular sign that I want to focus on is the veil and headscarf (hijab) that is a standard feature for Muslim women and for ninjas. In European and American culture, the sign of the veil is typically understood as a symbol of Islam’s oppression of women. In this sense, the veil and headscarf is understood by the West as a sign of difference –how they are different from us. Many connotations are attached to this one symbol, and it is somewhat famously controversial, but the strongest connotation for Europeans and Americans is oppression. What is curious about this symbol is how divorced from any sense of the ordinary, everyday life in the countries where hijab is commonly worn. So, the assumption in the western media is that all Iranian women are oppressed, and the meaning of this article of clothing is oppression. The piece of clothing functions as a sign — a sign overloaded with meaning, kind of like the way the Scarlet Letter A functions as sign for the Puritans in Hawthorne’s famous novel. An example of the western assumption is the rather chauvinistic Atlantic.com article about the women ninjas. This article wrongly assumes that the women ninjas are resisting state sponsored oppression. But this is no underground movement. In fact, the ninja clubs are part of a general state sponsored fitness program, the exact opposite of the Atlantic.com‘s idiotic assumption. What the Atlantic.com also neglects to mention is that 60% of all college graduates in Iran are women, and it has one of the most progressive family medical leave programs in the world. (The United States, in contrast, has one of the least progressive.) Considering that feminists have long been arguing for a more progressive family medical act, why is it so hard for American feminists to appreciate Iran? Why is hijab understood as oppressive and bikinis and pole dancing liberating? Despite the fact that Iranian women play sports, western governments won’t allow them to play in competitions for one reason only — the hijab clothing, simply because of its symbolic meaning.
What I think is so fascinating about the above video is that, when I am watching it, I can’t quite tell which part of the outfit is hijab and which part is the ninja’s outfit, called in Japanese shinobi shozoku. And this is key, because when we think about ninjas in the Japanese context, rather than the Iranian context, we think of that sort of clothing not as a symbol of oppression, but as a symbol of power. Hence, in the imagination of the other culture (always exaggerated according to a logic of difference — of us versus them), this same item of clothing in one context means weakness and in another context means strength. And this is why I think Saussure is correct when he says that the meaning of signs is not so much based on the referent (the thing that you can point to with your index finger — in this case, the clothing), but to the whole system of signs that the one sign is a part of.
And of course, the reason for all this odd fascination in American pop culture with the ninja women in Iran at this particular moment is that the United States happens to be leading an international embargo of Iran’s economy and threatening Iran with the possibility of an attack. Iran, meanwhile, continues to develop its nuclear program. It is not the point of this blog to make a political argument for or against the embargo or to speculate on the likelihood of the United States or Israel attacking Iran. Rather, I just want to point out how strange it is for Americans to be so fascinated by ninja women in Iran at this time. Or maybe it’s not strange at all. Maybe it’s all too predictable. If we read the signs, the contradictory double meaning of the veil says a lot about America’s confused and troubled relationship with this other country. For the western fantasy – the kind of fantasy we see in James Bond movies — the hijab is both a symbol of power and of weakness. It is the image of the woman he desires and the image of the woman he is supposed to scorn or pity, the woman he is both scared of and wants to save. And if you think I’m exaggerating, see this really gross website forum where American men have already posted lewd comments about either submitting to sexy Iranian women or dominating them. In conclusion, the American interpretation of the ninja woman in Iran and the sign of the veil is rife with all sorts of ideological contradictions. One can understand why American pop culture would have so much fun entertaining this contradictory fantasy, but let us hope that our political leaders don’t think and act like adolescent James Bonds.
I created this class at my school on business writing, which to be honest has been a bit difficult. My areas of expertise are cultural theory, globalization, early American literature, and transatlantic eighteenth-century literature, including the Caribbean, and when I’m not doing those things, I’m usually learning about the Oromo people of Ethiopia. Notice that what’s not included in that list is business writing or any sort of writing pedagogy. But at small liberal arts colleges it’s rare to find a faculty who would include that on his or her list of specialities. Anyhow, the idea for my course is to blend a lot of the standard elements of a business writing class that are taught at most large public universities with the humanistic, critical inquiry and ethical questions that are valued at the small liberal arts Catholic college where I work. Since I don’t know of any textbook that does this, one of my former students and I have begun creating an on-line textbook using a wiki. The wiki allows us to constantly revise and update the text to respond to changes in the world, as well as changes in the teacher. In other words, if a new technology comes along, we can just add that. And if someone else is going to teach the class and has a different way of looking at things, then he or she can just go into the wiki and rewrite some of the text accordingly. Students can also contribute to it.
So, in my blog today (since only people registered for the class can see the wiki textbook), I wanted to put something I wrote for the textbook out there in the public to see what kind of feedback I might get. Also, it kind of relates to the concept of the “subject” that we just covered in my other class, the intro to theory for which I created this blog in the first place. Below is a section from the wiki textbook. To give you some background, the five units for the book are 1) Getting a Job, 2) Internal Communication, 3) Networking and Collaboration, 4) External Communication, and 5) Presentations and Visuals. Currently, we are in the middle of the second unit on internal communication, which includes memos, e-mails, reports, and proposals. For each unit, the textbook has three sections. The first section is simply practical how-to stuff, like what does a memo or a progress report typically look like. The second section is a more theoretically reflective section, which we believe is necessary so that students can actually think about what they’re doing and respond intelligently to changing circumstances; in other words, this is where the humanistic, critical inquiry valued by liberal arts colleges comes into play. And the third section is a bunch of activities and assignments. So, below is what I just wrote today for the “theory” section of unit two.
Diversity, Power, and Democratic Communication
Whether you’re working for a large company, a small business, a government office, or a non-governmental organization, internal communication is what makes the place run. We can use the metaphor of a human body to describe the workplace. Without good communication, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and the right leg might be walking in a different direction than the left. You can imagine a humorous cartoon version of this. Worst case scenario is the workplace stumbles and falls or gives itself a bloody nose.
Unlike the sort of writing that takes place in the university or the public sphere, writing in the private sphere is subject to a range of demands, expectations, and sources of information. We might think of the scholarly writing or the kind of writing that appears in magazines such as Harper’s and The Atlantic as “transcendental” writing. Such writing assumes an ethically pure position of privilege above the nitty-gritty of the work-a-day world. This is the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion of “enlightenment” where the writer or critic positions himself or herself outside the system that he or she critiques. Such a critique is fundamental for society, which is why the institutions that support that position, such as newspapers and the “public sphere” (theorized by Jurgen Habermas), play such an important role in our society. However, writing in the workplace is different in that it puts the individual within a web of demands and expectations that he or she must negotiate.
Furthermore, just as we learned in the ”Getting a Job” unit for this course, each and every place has its own unique culture, norms, values, procedures, and organizational structure. Some places may be rigidly formal, others casual. Some may emphasize a hierarchical chain of command and clear lines of authority, and others may value a more open-ended, democratic environment. For some jobs, you may work autonomously much of the time, but in others you may be mostly working as a team or under the direction of someone else. And some organizations may seem like they value diversity and democratic decision-making when in fact they are really top-down, autocratic, and resistant to genuine, positive change.
It is now a commonplace idea held by many theorists and business leaders that companies increasingly value diversity and horizontal communication. Why is this so? What was wrong with the old model, where the boss told the employees what to do, and they did it. After all, the military has a clear hierarchical, vertical, and centralized chain of command, and what’s wrong with that? Actually, today’s military has also been affected by the “postmodern condition” and have become more horizontal and decentered. The reason why companies discovered the benefits of democratic decision-making and the important role of diversity is the same reason why nation states did. What is sarcastically called the “old boys network” at the top (or, we might say, the “rich white men”) didn’t always make the right decisions. They were less innovative and responsive to changing conditions on the ground, and were subject to something called “group think.” Group think is when everyone gradually thinks the same way even if that way turns out to be really, really wrong. One Nobel-prize winning economist (Paul Krugman) famously compared stock brokers to lemmings who just followed the leader off a cliff and didn’t think for themselves. Catastrophic events like the Thai-bhat crash in 1997 and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 were the result of “group think”, when thousands of individuals engaged in unwise and unethical behavior. Hence, diversity and democratic decision-making are not just noble principles for a just and equitable society. They are also perceived to be the foundation of good business and a necessary antidote to the evils of the old boys network. Free and open communication are essential for a competitive, innovative organization. Moreover, our postmodern appreciation for horizontal communication not so coincidentally happens alongside many new communications technologies such as the internet and e-mail that allow information to flow in all sorts of directions with the touch of a button. New communications technologies create new organizational structures and forms of internal communication, even though traces of the old forms remain. (For instance, e-mail basically follows the conventions of the old-fashioned memo, except in a quicker, more casual form and more easily sent to a diverse array of people.) Likewise, college professors began to celebrate the internet and such on-line communication technologies as course-management software (e.g., Moodle), chat rooms, and social networking sites as ways to “decenter” and “democratize” the classroom, appreciate the knowledge students bring to the class, include a wider diversity of student voices, etc., etc., etc.
However, as theorists as different from each other as Stanley Deetz, Slavoj Zizek, and Gilles Deleuze have argued, much of this “new-age” business model that seems to liberate workers from the old power structure actually just creates a new and even more complex demand. Workers must be more adaptive, more agile, and more responsive to changing conditions. This new demand instills within the postmodern labor force an ever-present anxiety, requiring constant personal development. Moreover, diversity and democratic decision-making are valued only up to a point — so far as they continue to serve the basic power structure. As the philosopher Deleuze argued in a brief and somewhat famous essay “Society of Control” (in which he responds to Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish), what makes the new form of control so challenging is precisely the ways in which the chain of command is no longer simple, linear, and top-down. Rather, it is more like a web of relations in which the protocols for communication are situational and ad hoc. As a result, the roles we play and faces we wear (like professional masks) are also more complicated. Organizations focus on team building and blur the boundaries between “work” and “leisure” in order to boost morale and improve the lines of communication among all the different members of the organization. This is believed to improve productivity and efficiency. However, the “casualization” of the workplace doesn’t result in more liberated labor. Just because we now wear jeans on “casual Fridays” and go river-rafting with the boss does not mean that we are getting a better paycheck or that we are really our boss’s equal or buddy. Corporations increasingly give all of their employees the formal title of “assistant manager” or even “manager” when in fact they are not really managers at all — just paper pushing, number crunching assistants, as the TV show The Office famously mocks. Both the British and American versions of this show are symptomatic of the anxieties employees feel in the workplace where the chain of command is ambiguous and the democratization of communication lacks clarity.
In fact, the casualization of the workplace and the multi-directionality and diversification of communications technologies means that the demand for effective workplace communication is all the more intense. In essence, the workplace remains rife with ideological contradictions and dilemmas, in which workers are subject to conflicting expectations and demands. How to negotiate those conflicting expectations and demands and become a more ethical person is the reason why a course such as English 315 “Business Writing, Civil Society, and Professional Careers” exists. At the end of the day, however, this sort of writing is an experimental writing, not a following of strict formulas. The more you do it, the more you practice this sort of communication, and the more you think about the choices you make and how you perform different roles at different times, the more this complex web of relations will make sense.
Many career services centers at colleges around the country like to show their students the results of a nation-wide survey of employers and business leaders. The survey question is simple. What skills do they want from college graduates? The answer won’t surprise you; number one is the ability to communicate (write, read, talk, listen, etc.). Also on the list are flexibility and creativity. In addition, these days, more and more, following the crash of our economy due to the unethical practices of a short-sighted corporate sector (including accounting scandals, investment scandals, etc., etc., too numerous to bother listing here), employers also value critical thinking and ethics. They see these skills as necessary for any professional labor force that is adaptive, innovative, reliable, and trustworthy. These skills are all the more necessary in an economy that is increasingly affected by globalization, increasingly dominated by information technologies, and increasingly protean — changing all the time in ways that are exciting and productive, but also unstable and a bit frightening. And what I hope is obvious to anyone reading this blog, these are precisely the skills one learns in the disciplines of the humanities such as philosophy, history, etc., and especially my own discipline of literature. This is why all students at almost all colleges and universities are required to take two or three classes in writing and other communication skills, one or two classes in cultural diversity, and sometimes even one or two courses in ethics. All standard stuff. Hence, one might think that if a university administration were going to support any discipline in this supposedly creative, global, social-networking age, one would want to support the departments of world literature and creative writing. But curiously, no. Shortly following the sad news of Joe Paterno’s death, which received a lot of media attention, Penn State’s English department (where I got my own Ph.D.) released some other sad news that received no media attention at all. Due to state budget cuts, the department will no longer be admitting graduate students to its highly ranked M.F.A. program in creative writing. This depressing event is not a unique one. Nation-wide, at the same time that universities have begun to funnel dollars into new, adventuresome ”global” centers and initiatives, their programs in world literature (where the study of ”global” culture has been going on for two centuries) has suffered cuts.
There would seem to be an ideological contradiction here. What’s going on? How might we demystify this mystery?
And it’s not just America. Celebrated Ugandan author Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish, recently responded to some petty politicians in her home country who disparaged the worth of the arts. In her recent essay “Why Art?” published just a few days ago (almost at exactly the same time that Penn State’s English department made its decision), she describes her experience watching modern dance to explain the value of the arts. She explains that creativity invigorates new ways of seeing the world, that it enables individuals to ethically confront the ways that the complex vicissitudes of the world pull us apart, that it enables us to understand and relate to people from other cultures that we may not understand, and that it helps us value our own traditions and ways of life at the same time that we adapt to the new cultures of a rapidly changing world. All important things, few would disagree, but it’s hard to find a public university in Africa that supports programs in the arts. One of the legacies of European colonialism is its emphasis on the technical skills that the colonizer needed the colonized to learn in order to build the roads and administer its laws, but Europe kept the development of the arts for itself.
One might wonder whether governments and university administrators have simply gone stupid over night — while the rest of us were all sleeping — and for some unknown reason no longer realize the importance of the programs that foster the very skills they say they want fostered. However, this is not the case. To demystify this apparent ideological contradiction, we can play a simple game of “follow the money.” In fact, governments care about the arts quite a bit, and not always in the most honest of ways. Looking back in history, the most infamous and surprising example of this was discovered when some documents from the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States were declassified; it turns out that the CIA was aggressively funding avant garde art. Holy cow! What does painting and poetry have to do with spying and national security? They did so for two reasons. First, in order to fight the culture war against the Soviet Union, America had to appear more free, more innovative… more better, or something. But they weren’t funding all kinds of art, and not even all kinds of avant garde postmodern art. They were promoting a specific variety of art and specific artists in order to de-politicize it and marginalize writers and painters who were critical of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Moreover, the United States has also been very aggressive in promoting its culture industry around the world (one of its biggest and most lucrative exports), not just the ability of Hollywood to market its films abroad but also the many small programs that are officially independent and non-governmental but receive most of their funding from the federal government program USAID. So, the government does care about the arts, and it does care about culture, and it does care about globalization, creativity, writing, etc., after all. Just not the sort of art and culture that might lead young people to question the ideology of a government corrupted by Wall Street and the military industrial complex.
(A side note on the military industrial complex and where the money for large research universities comes from. Public and private universities receive millions of dollars from the federal government for the research and development of new military technologies and new pills. In other words, new ways to keep the population alive and medicated while refining instruments of death, all paid for by public taxes that serve corporate interests. Many of the new military technologies are actually worthless, but they keep the corporations who make them (and their stock holders) financially afloat. It’s a curious and expensive form of corporate welfare. Meanwhile, as for the state taxes that are supposed to pay for all the other, more peaceful programs that all undergraduates need in order to obtain the skills that employers actually want — these get cut, and the politicians explain that they have to cut them, so that they can cut taxes, so that individuals can go buy more crap at the store, indulging the commodity fetish, because our economy is based on the never-ending growth of the crap merchants.)
Responding to all the hype in the mainstream media and all the highly ideological incentives that politicians build into the system, schools are feeling the pressure to create new centers on global leadership, intercultural competency, and all the things that literature departments used to do, but now the administrators can do them the way its corporate-minded board wants them to, without having to deal with all those pesky subversives. In other words, in a classic political and rhetorical move, universities such as Penn State are co-opting the values of literature departments (values such as good writing, creativity, innovation, and cultural awareness), but changing the meaning and practice of these valued skills by shifting them to other centers that are more beholden to the short-sighted agendas of stock holders and speculators.
How to fight back? Unlike the military industrial complex, who wage their battles through instruments of death and by killing off (metaphorically speaking) the academic programs that foster creative, critical, and ethical thought, we fight back by creating. It is a hard battle, because the media (who, by the way, is sometimes owned by the same company that makes the death stuff) is constantly telling our students and the parents of our students that nobody with a degree in literature, philosophy, or history can find a job. We might worry that the prophecies of the network news pundits might be self-fulfilling. In other words, even though the pundits are flat-out lying or just plain ignorant of the facts on the ground, the lie will influence behavior if it is believed, and the new behavior creates a new reality. My own fear is that their lie might become the truth simply because they have the power to make it true, the way a rumor spreads like a virus, changing the behavior of everyone who hears it. But, given the set of skills demanded by employers, this is a battle we always inevitably win, even in the midst of our darkest hour, because the world needs creators; it doesn’t need killers. As the CIA case shows, governments are more successful at winning friends and influencing people through skillful communication and the arts than by dropping bombs and kicking in doors.
Fact is, they need us. This is our power. But we also need them. Hence, the dilemmas of the creative spirit. So, if they co-opt our values because they need our skills (as the case of the CIA demonstrates), then should our strategy be to co-opt their centers of power? How might we imagine such a co-option? If “global” and “information technology” is where they now want to put the money, even though some of the people making the decisions about that money may not really understand what the word global means or how information technology works, should we simply co-opt their center and make it smarter and more ethical than it might otherwise have been. (And, by-the-by, co-opting their ideology of the zero-sum game of the job market is exactly the rhetorical tactic of this blog post, as you may have noticed in the first paragraph.) In doing so, we enter the dangerous game of cultural politics, where meaning and ideological effects are beyond the intention of their authors.
Recently, on Theory Teacher’s sister blog “Film and Media,” I wrote about the recent YouTube video of Kermit and Miss Piggy discussing Fox News’s attack of Disney’s movie The Muppets. But as that post also employs Stanley Fish’s theoretical concept of “intepretive communities,” it certainly relates to my class on literary and cultural theory. You can check that out [here]. Below is the video that I discuss. Meanwhile, I have created a third blog [here] devoted to the idea of Atlantic Literature — a subject I have substantial scholarly interest in, enough, perhaps, to warrant a separate blog.
I have created a new blog specifically devoted to Film and Media for a workshop in Ethiopia that I am conducting through Skype and other internet technologies. So, please click [here] and check it out. Meanwhile, when the spring semester starts in a couple weeks, I will end my blog-o-sphere vacation and begin posting regularly again my Theory Teacher’s Blog for my introduction to theory class.
Starting this week, the second week of May 2011, I will be taking a vacation from my blog. I started writing it in January 2008 as part of the “Introduction to Literary Theory” class that I was teaching then. All the students in the class had to keep blogs too, and I enjoyed reading them as well as my blogroll comrades (listed right.) Since then, it morphed into something that related to other classes I taught and to other various topics related to my teaching, scholarship, and political activism (especially my work with the Oromo community.) In the forty months since its beginning, I have written 126 posts, averaging about three per month. And according to the data counter, the blog has been averaging a little more than 2,000 views per month for the past few months (though I suspect most of those views are insubstantial.) But it’s time for a break.
My blog’s vacation will end in January 2012 when I begin teaching the “Introduction to Literary Theory” class again. I am grateful to all of my friends, family, colleagues, students, former students, and interested strangers who have read my blog from time to time over the years. I am grateful to your generosity and curiosity, and I appreciate you perhaps more than you realize. And I sincerely hope you will come back to check out my new posts next year when I return to the blog-0-sphere and start blogging again.
I woke up late this Saturday morning and discovered I had caught a cold. I’m sure you know the feeling — headache, stuffy nose, and other yuckiness; I’ll spare you the rather gross details. I have a very particular way that I respond to the common cold, a regimen I’ve innovated after years of experimentation, and part of this regimen includes going to the movie theater to see a mindless action movie. But there’s not much good in the theaters this month, so I saw Sucker Punch. Actually, it was pretty fun, and coincidentally the movie suggests some interesting ideas about the relationship between mind and body, and it reminded me of the philosophy I’ve invented to explain (or rationalize) the way I respond to the common cold.
So, before I get to talking about the movie and the theory, here’s my somewhat idiosyncratic regimen. First thing is a small cardiovascular workout. Now, the word “small” is a relative term, and I exercise pretty regularly, so for me “small” means half of what I’d do if I were feeling healthy. I think this is the opposite of what most people do when they’re sick. Most people rest, but the first thing that I want to do is clear out all the stuffed up yuckiness that I feel has been collecting in my body while I slept. It feels gross, and I want to get rid of it. A short run gets the lungs and arteries moving so that they can clean up the yuckiness. After the workout, I have a big breakfast with lots of fruit and some hot green tea with some lemon, honey, and fresh grated ginger. Ginger is good for the throat and for the soul, according to many cultural traditions around the world, and green tea has antioxidants. After spending the morning reading enjoyable stuff (and it’s got be enjoyable, or it’s not going to work), for lunch I have a spicy-garlic-vegetable soup. Garlic is also a famous anti-cold remedy and generally good for your health, and I suspect that’s where the tradition of using garlic to ward of vampires and evil spirits came from. The spiciness just helps clear my head and my nose. I don’t know why it does this, but it does. I’ve heard that red pepper releases endorphins in your brain, which makes you feel better, so maybe that’s it. Then I go see an action movie in the movie theater. Something about being in the theater, with the loud sound and intense visual, allows me to stop thinking about being sick and gets my pulse going. And when I stop thinking about it, then my body seems to relax and begin to cure itself. In a sense, I suspect that worrying about being sick gets in the way of getting better. Then I come home, have some roiboos (a.k.a. African red bush) tea.
My practice goes against what’s usually done in Western medicine, which emphasizes rest, seclusion, repeated diagnosis, and drugs. Typically what this means today is sitting around the house, watching TV, taking cold medicine, and feeling like crap. All of these things combined basically make you feel even more lousy, and because you haven’t done anything all day, it’s hard to sleep, even though you’re tired, and so your sleep cycle gets messed up, and then you get more tired the next day. Cold medicines aren’t actually designed to do anything about the virus that causes the cold. They are designed to simply numb your body so it doesn’t feel the symptoms. I can’t see how this is at all helpful, unless the pain is so great that it prevents you from doing things. (I readily concede that there are cases — rare cases — when Western medicine is useful.) In my admittedly paranoid opinion, the primary goal of Western medicine is not to make you get better and live a happier and more productive life; rather, the goal is to make money for the pharmaceutical industry and doctors. There is a whole industry at stake here, and that industry funds a system of knowledge, a whole way of thinking about health — something the theorist Michel Foucault calls a regime of truth – a way of thinking that I wouldn’t say is false, but perhaps blinds us to more simpler, healthier alternatives.
For me, the way to get better is self-discipline and a flight into wellness. To put it simply, I want to be well, so I do well things. And also for me, the mind is connected to the body; it’s all one. There is no dualism between them, no distinction. The only way to make yourself well is self-discipline, a regimen of the body rather than a regime of truth about biochemistry. To put it another way, for me, the location of my soul is my lungs and my arteries. And I think the ancients understood this which is why the word spirit is etymologically related to the word respiration. To put it still another way, if you think of your head being connected to your feet, and you want your head to get better, then move your feet. This reminds me of the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.”
What does this have to do with the movie Sucker Punch? Well, check out its trailer:
The movie is about a girl nicknamed Babydoll, whose abusive stepfather puts her in an institution for the mentally insane after she tries to defend herself and her sister against him. She is traumatized by the fact that when she tried to shoot him, she accidentally shot her sister. Her stepfather is afraid her confession to the police might implicate him, so he makes a deal with the corrupt and criminal manager of the institution to have her lobotomized. The manager, we soon find out, uses the institution as a front for his criminal activity, and he prostitutes all the young girls. The girls are trained by a dance instructor to perform sexy dances for an audience. All of this we learn in the first few minutes of the film. The rest of the film is Babydoll’s plan to escape with her fellow inmates Rocket, Blondie, Amber, and Sweet Pea and her flights of imagination into these elaborate, action-packed, video-game-like battle scenes. So, the movie is pretty absurd, mostly just some cute girls kicking ass, but the absurdity isn’t there for nothing. The metaphor between the fantasy battles and the girl gang’s real strategy for libration is obvious, and it is a metaphor that (like all metaphors) moves us somewhere. The movie explicitly articulates its moral, “your mind can set you free.”
But what does that mean? Certainly, it does not simply mean to deny reality and fantasize. The movie deliberately blurs the lines between “reality” and “fantasy,” and what is more, Babydoll’s fantasies about doing battle only occur when she is dancing. The relationship between her body dancing and her mind imagining is the key here. The dance instructor tells the girls that the dance is a little world that they control in the midst of a larger world which imprisons and abuses them. She tells them that she is teaching them how to survive evil. Significantly, surviving evil is not the same thing as escaping it, and what Babydoll does is use the survival practice of dancing as a tool for imagining and putting into practice a means of escape — what the theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call a line of flight. And it is Babydoll’s transfiguration of survival tactics into a revolutionary liberation strategy that is the basis of the plot.
Like me, Deleuze and Guattari also deny the mind-body dualism, and instead advocate a very empiricist and critical practice of freedom. Their philosophy also calls into question Western psychology, as the title of their first book, Anti-Oedipus, indicates. However, I think it is a mistake to think (as many scholars today do) that they were simply opposed to psychoanalytic teachings of Freud and Lacan. In fact, Guattari considered himself a Lacanian. What they did was move psychology away from reductive mind categories (e.g., id, ego, superego, Oedipal relationship, etc., which I’ve discussed in detail elsewhere in my blog [here]) and towards a philosophy and practice of the body. Their philosophy is somewhat based on the real-world practices of institutional psychotherapy that Guattari actually ran at La Borde. I have been reading about this recently in a new biography of Deleuze and Guattari by François Dosse, entitled Intersecting Lives. (I’m not finished with the book yet.) Guattari’s practices were reputed to be quite successful but were also radically different from standard medical practices. La Borde was something of a utopian commune in which the doctors, nurses, and patients all shared responsibilities (including the menial labor of cleaning and cooking) and regularly met to discuss the daily schedule and duties. The point was to move patients out of the subject position of “patient” and get them to actually act like a person. The line of flight out of mental illness was not drugs and diagnosis; rather it was activity, conversation, planning, the body’s relationship to other bodies, and an affirmation of differences. In other words, discipline and flight.