Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Citational Politics

Let's get the positivity out of the way: I loved Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed. There is a different, related essay (perhaps a book?) to be written about what it is like to be a "feminist killjoy" when one's femininity is not universally recognized, when it runs orthogonal to the assignations that have been put on a person. But that is not the essay I have time for.

What strikes me as a weak point of the book is Ahmed's "citational policy" of not quoting white men. It ends up undermining her argument in two key ways that I could identify, one through what it ended up including, and another for what it ended up omitting. First the inclusion problem:

Chapter 9 of the book represents an effort on Ahmed's part to make a case for the importance of a specifically lesbian feminism, which she ends up defining as a feminism in which women relate to one another without the mediation of relationships to men. Let us leave aside, for the moment, the fraught question of whether it is even possible to fully exclude such mediations. There is a more immediate philological challenge in that, historically, manifestations of a specifically lesbian feminism have functioned as fertile soil for the trans-exclusionary ideologies which Ahmed, in this chapter, elsewhere in the book, and elsewhere in her writings, so vociferously and accurately rejects. The result is a performative contradiction that is only evident to a reader with some measure of archival knowledge. This contradiction becomes most evident on page 227, where Ahmed writes,

You have to wrap life around being. I would suggest that it is transfeminism today that most recalls the militant spirit of lesbian feminism in part because of the insistence that crafting a life is political work. Transfeminist manifestos carry the baton of carry the baton of lesbian feminist manifestos such as "Woman Identified Woman": from Sandy Stone's (2006) "The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto" to Julia Serano's (2007) "Trans Woman Manifesto" and Susan Stryker's (1994) "My Words to Victor Frankenstein".

It is wonderful that she has cited trans women such as Sandy Stone, Julia Serano, and Susan Stryker, though each of these manifestos has a slightly different perspective on how best to "wrap life around being," how the crafting of a life politicizes. As a transfeminist myself, I find myself most sympathetic to the positions articulated by Stone. But what is strange, and not so wonderful, is that each of these writings is compared to an older (1970) document which Ahmed has already praised, without acknowledging the historical fact that the collective which authored "Woman Identified Woman," Radicalesbians, was explicitly trans-exclusionary.

It is not enough, then, to cite people's writings. When those writings are artefacts of material struggles in which the authors of certain writings opposed, oppressed, and negated the authors of others, then what does it mean to say that the latter carries on the "militant spirit" of the former? Is the militant hovering unseen over the entryway to the feminist bookshop, waiting to see who will gain admittance to a controversial event? Such passivity seems quite the opposite of militancy.

It would have been better, not simply to praise WIW for the things that it says that Ahmed finds congenial, but to recognize which of its formulations were quite compatible with an exclusionary approach to womanhood that Ahmed finds repellent. It is not enough to praise Stone, Serano, and Stryker for their militancy, but to highlight specific points on which they have advanced feminism, by way of transfeminism, beyond what could be achieved by Radicalesbians. As Ahmed herself writes in the "Feminist Killjoy Manifesto" conclusion to the book, "I am not willing to be included if inclusion means being included in a system that is unjust, violent, and unequal." At that point on page 227, the inclusion of transfeminists within lesbian feminism comes across--again, only to those with archival knowledge--as inclusion in something unjust, unequal, and even on occasion, violent.

The second problem I identified is the problem of omission. Again, this depends on archival knowledge. Ahmed is, methodologically, a phenomenologist. Some phenomenologists have been explicitly feminist (e.g. de Beauvoir) or anti-oppression (Fanon), others arguably recuperable (Judith Butler might make the case for Sartre; I would make my case for Merleau-Ponty), and still others appalling (most notably, Heidegger). Because of her previously stated citational policy, only Beauvoir and Fanon are cited, but that does not mean that the concepts developed by the others are wholly absent from the book. In particular, I was struck by how frequently she used the phrase "being thrown". Because I have read Being and Time, I could not help but hear resonances of Heidegger and Geworfenheit. So though I could recognize both similarities and differences in how she uses the phrase, in how she derives it from life. The notion of "wrapping life around being" is a wonderful hint at how distant Ahmed's political vision is from Heidegger's, he who would crush life under the ponderous imponderable Seinsfrage. But because she never cites him, she never makes precise what her differences are.

Resonances occur independently of the will of the speaker. As I modulate my voice through a series of pitch changes, sometimes it will hit a low point, and a listener who is predisposed to perceive me as a man will hear that rumble, the way a particular frequency of air motion makes the material of the ear drum resonate, with a cruel "A-ha!" I want to hear Ahmed's Heideggerian resonances as either accidental or parodic, critical, showing how being thrown--far from being an ineluctable trait of Dasein--is something that certain existences experience more often than others when they encounter forces that negate their lives and being. But because she never makes this explicit, there is too much space, in the blank white spaces of the book, to enable a reader who is differently disposed to attempt to abuse Ahmed's phenomenology in elements of a recuperative reading of Heidegger.

Policy and politics are both derived from the same root, the polis. But they have very different significations. In practice, policy is something that is used by institutions of power to try and avoid politics, to put certain ways of doing things beyond dispute, to depoliticize. "That's just how we do things around here, it's policy." Ahmed acknowledges that her citational policy is a blunt instrument. In both these cases, the blunt instrument ended up, perhaps contrary to Ahmed's intentions, depoliticizing the citations in their presence and absence--including some, excluding others, but not making explicit what is at stake in the inclusions and exclusions, and how the mere fact of inclusion is not necessarily an index of agreement or even agreeability.

By making this the entire topic of the blog post, I fear I may have created the impression that I think this is a bad book. On the contrary, it is a very good and necessary one. With the exception of the awkwardness of Chapter 9, and occasional dissonant resonances involving the word "thrown," I found many more moments of shared killjoy experience. That this is all I have to say in criticism of it stands as high praise.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Undying Admiration

Before Anne Boyer deleted her Twitter account, she was my favorite mutual. We never met in person, but I admired her poems, and one of our interchanges on there contributed some inspiration and ideas that found their way into my story "Ruins of a Future Empire". However I hesitated to read her breakout success book, The Undying, as it seemed voyeuristic for a "man", as I still believed myself to be, to seek out a book about breast cancer.

As it happens, though, we are all implicated in breast cancer. My mother-in-law had it, and as she stubbornly works herself to exhaustion caring for my father-in-law, who is currently much more ill, my greatest fear is not that he becomes more ill, but that she has a recurrence, and suddenly worsens to a point where she can no longer insist on their capacity to manage on their own. Because my mother-in-law has had it, and because my partner inherited "dense breast tissue" down her matrilineal line, my partner is classified as being of greater risk, and gets imaged regularly. She recently had a scare. It turned out to be artefactual, a flicker of the ultrasound machine misunderstanding itself.

And the time will come, soon enough, for me to join the diagnostic parade. According to a presentation I attended on trans health, for trans women and nonbinary people who had previously been assigned male, the risks of breast cancer appear to reach parity with cisgender women's risks after about five years of HRT. Assuming that I remain on HRT for at least five years--and I have every intention of remaining on HRT--then I should get mammography at the same ages as women of my risk category. Fortunately, I am aware of no breast cancer history in my family, so it would not begin until 50. At the age of 50, my nonbinary gender identity will receive a peculiar sort of confirmation through the androgyny of my routine examinations: A doctor will examine my prostate, and then write a radiology prescription for me to get my tits smashed in between glass plates.

So I have read The Undying, now, and I would urge everyone to. As Anne points out, anyone with breast tissue--including men--can get breast cancer. And we all live in the capitalist carcigenosphere that she describes as no one else has or can.

This post is not so much about Anne Boyer or about The Undying, though, as it is about my own very peculiar experience of reading it. That is, imagining the possibility that the A cups which I waited so long to pursue, that I am so glad to have grown, that fill me with joy whenever they are caressed lovingly by my partner, that they could someday betray me. Having delayed my transition for so long, I want to live, if for no other reason than to have the duration of my joys outlast that of my self-suppression. If continuation of life should at some point require the sacrifice of the portion of my body that most readily symbolizes the reality of my transition, it would still be worth it, but the irony would be agonizing.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

A Note about the Palestinian General Strike

This post takes some scattered comments made recently in various formats on social media and attempts to synthesize them into something resembling a coherent argument. I should begin with a necessary disclaimer: It has been a decade since I made a point of routinely keeping up to date on Israel's social statistics and political events. I no longer pretend to be a researcher on Israeli society and the role therein of Palestinian workers. So this post will not contain any detailed quantitative analyses, nor will it attempt to provide a meticulously documented overview of various contending forces and trends within Israeli society. However, though my attention to Israel has waned over the last 10 years, compared to the period before, I remain interested, as a Jew who unconditionally supports the rights of the Palestinian people and therefore politically opposes the State of Israel and the Zionist movement. And the fact that I can read Hebrew sometimes gives me access to information that other such casual observers may have missed.

Many observers, both internationally and within Israel, were surprised at the impact of this Monday's Palestinian general strike on the Israeli economy, which hit sectors such as construction and food production and delivery particularly hard. They should not have been, though one can understand where the misperception of reality and the resulting surprise came from. Many people--myself included--have at times overstated the degree to which Palestinian workers have been excluded from participation in the economy, which is overwhelmingly controlled by Israeli employers in portions of the land under the direct military control of Israel. Palestinians suffer greatly from this exclusion, and therefore it is important to emphasize it, but one runs the risk thereby of overemphasizing it. Thus, for example, I once wrote something characterizing the response of the Israeli state and capital to the last time that Palestinians made extensive use of the strike, the first Intifada, as a "general lockout," in which the State sped up Jewish immigration from Ethiopia and the ex-USSR, while capital shoved the new migrants into the types of jobs that had hitherto been stigmatized as avodah aravit (Arab work). This was accurate, but only for a limited span of time. Thanks to the internationalization of racial-caste barriers the Ethiopian Jews are still largely stuck at that economic stratum, but most of the "Russians" have moved on. Internationally, Israel is running out of marginalized communities of Jews which it can import and exploit.

This is a problem, then, both for the Israeli state and for Israeli capital. Through dispossession of Palestinians, Israeli capital took possession, with the state as an active intermediary, of land and natural resources which were preconditions to accumulation. However land and resources are merely necessary conditions to accumulation, not sufficient. Capital requires labor, and it accumulates especially rapidly when the labor force is sharply segmented and therefore politically weakened in its resistance to accumulation. The degree and modality of this segmentation varies according to historical conditions. Israel is part of the subtype of colonial-settler states and societies. There is, however, no pure, Platonic form of colonial-settler society, and Israel is a particularly messy blend. At one end of the spectrum, one finds societies such as North America and Australia, where the native population is so thoroughly subordinated, so extensively expelled and destroyed, that the survivors of the resulting genocide can play only a relatively small role in the composition of the labor force. The extent to which the working-class of the settler population can be exploited is limited therefore by the material concessions which capital has to make in order to assure that they place their loyalty to the "white race" ahead of their loyalty to the international working class. These concessions did measurably slow the accumulation of capital in Canada and Australia at key moments in history, relative to their imperialist peers. It was less of a brake on the accumulation of capital in the U.S., for two reasons: First, the existence of an enslaved portion of the proletariat, and its demographic and temporal extension through the enforcement of a racial-caste barrier against all Black Americans, enslaved or free, which provided a model for the prolongation of superexploitation following slavery's formal abolition. Then secondly, in part through the operationalization of the racial-caste boundary, the staged and partial admittance of immigrant groups into the contingent and limited benefits of whiteness. The history of immigration and the formation of the U.S. working class is the history of the successive (but sometimes partial or revocable) admission of meticulously defined and re-defined groupings into hegemonic whiteness.

At the other extreme, we find the Apartheid model, exemplified, but never exclusive to, South Africa in the period from 1948-1994. That is, a state in which the native population is classified, segregated, and subjected to innumerable restrictions on where and how they may work, live, and even die and be laid to rest. Every colonial-settler society is, potentially and in reality, at certain moments of its history, an Apartheid state, even in the historical epoch before the Afrikaans word was coined and disseminated world-wide. For example, it can be argued that colonial society in what is now the United States pioneered Apartheid well before that name, with the establishment first of all of a category of hereditary chattel slavery to which laborers both of indigenous and African descent were subjected. It was only after indigenous labor was, in most areas of the emergent polity, genocidally destroyed that the mark of hereditary chattel slavery came to be confounded with the racial-caste mark of Blackness. Through the subsequent elaboration of an global discourse of "race," the indigenous labor of Africa came into the circuits of world capital already branded by irons that had been forged for their enslaved cousins in the Americas.

With this historical understanding of the range of colonial-settler societies, it becomes possible to recognize the degree to which Israel, in its treatment of the indigenous Palestinian population, has heterogeneously mixed and matched elements from both the Apartheid model of settler-colonialism (segregate and exploit) and the American/Australian model (expel, expropriate and destroy). The dynamic tension between these models has enabled Israeli capital to accumulate over the last 73 years with almost unmatched rapidity. (The document in which I argue for this is about 10 years out of date, and I would likely want to revise some of its subordinate conclusions before publishing it, but I do have back-up for these assertions.) The current working class of historic Palestine is complexly and multiply segmented. The most important division has been and remains that between Jews, on the one hand, and Palestinians, on the other, which is at least partly comparable to the Black/white division in the United States, or the African/European division in South Africa. However within each of these two major groupings there are multiple subdivisions that are at least partially recognized and reinforced by state policy, along lines of "race," ethnicity, religion, migration status, and geography. In this respect it is also comparable to both the United States and South Africa, inasmuch as both those countries were always also complex, and complexified, in ways that have been expertly turned into modalities of power. As in these predecessors, however, the complexities ought not to obscure the stark moral difference between those who are oppressed and excluded, and those whose identity depends upon participation in the mechanisms of oppression and exclusion.

And there are also, it must be added, groups that do not fit into the core dichotomy. These groups have proliferated especially in the thirty years since the first Intifada. I refer here primarily to groups of non-Jewish migrants, who can be put to use by Israeli capital as a source of labor comparable to Palestinian workers' in their precarity, but without the risk to profits that arise whenever Palestinians attempt to assert and defend their rights as indigenous people.

There have been two major categories of such migrants. The first consists of refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from various parts of Subsaharan Africa. For these migrants, Israel is more a destination of convenience than a preferred destination, because, unlike EU member states (with the partial exception of Spain, with its colonial enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the coast of Morocco), Israel has a land border with an African country, Egypt. The second consists of economic migrants, who are usually employer-sponsored--in other words, guest workers--and who mostly from non-Muslim countries and ethnicities in South Asia and Southeast Asia. The first flow is irregular and subject to militarized interdiction by both Israeli and Egyptian state forces. It was not even possible until after the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control under the Camp David Accords and the Taba Agreement of 1989 (which coincided, helpfully for Israel, with the beginning of the subsidence of the first Intifada). The second flow is subject to tight bureaucratic supervision. This is not to say that migrants who enter via this route do not sometimes remain in irregular visa status, of course, as is the case with state-supervised economic migrants throughout the world. With both these groups of migrants--the refugees/asylum seekers and the guest workers--recruited for similar jobs to those available to Palestinian workers, there is of course some element of labor competition among these groups, and between these groups and Palestinians.

However, the same fact that keeps Palestinians in "48" (the original boundaries of the State of Israel) in a subordinate social position despite their Israeli citizenship, and that utterly dispossesses the Palestinians in "67" (Gaza & the West Bank)--namely, the avowedly "Jewish" nature of the state--also keeps both these categories of migrants in a very precarious position.

Let us consider, for example, how difficult it would be for a migrant to marry an Israeli citizen, either for love or for convenience. There is no civil marriage in Israel, due to a political power-sharing agreement with the Orthodox Jewish Rabbinate dating back to 1948, under David Ben-Gurion. Marriage must therefore be carried out by a state-recognized officiant of a state-recognized religion--Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Druze. Each of these religions have limitations or prohibitions on marriage to someone of another religion. And perhaps the most stringest such prohibitions are those observed by the Jewish authorities in Israel. I don't know the details of what it would take for a migrant to marry an Israeli citizen of Christian, Muslim, or Druze faith, but I do know this: None of those marriages will qualify that migrant for permanent residency or citizenship in Israel. They will remain precarious. To become a citizen, only marriage to a Jew will do, and that is only possible following a conversion to Judaism that has been administered according to Jewish law in its most stringently Orthodox interpretation, as rendered by the Rabbinate. This sort of conversion is no easy matter.

Ironically, the traditional difficulty of conversion to Judaism evolved, not as an exercise in ethnoreligious chauvinism in service to a powerful state, but as a method of Jewish communal self-defense over centuries in "exile." So long as most Jews lived in the power of state authorities that were avowedly Christian or Muslim, and those authorities defined "apostasy" (e.g. conversion to Judaism) as a crime, any desire of non-Jews to become Jews was implicitly dangerous for the community as a whole. To reassure state authorities that Judaism was not a proselytizing religion, a whole host of restrictions proliferated--based of course on Talmudic precedent, but driven largely by matters of political convenience. Since "Jewish Emancipation" (dating, in North America, largely to the American Revolution), and in Europe, to the French Revolution and the partial spread of its juridical accomplishments through the Napoleonic conquests), there have been debates among Jews about whether such stringency is even needed any more. The Reform and Conservative movements have loosened up significantly. But remember, Reform and Conservative Judaism have little legal standing in Israel.

Consider the case of the Lemba people. They are an ethnic group found in parts of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, and Malawi, who have traditions claiming patrilineal descent from Jews. Because Orthodox Judaism, and therefore Israel's immigration laws, does not recognize the validity of patrilineal descent, a group of Lemba who had formally converted to Judaism petitioned recently for permission to migrate to Israel. They were denied, however, because their conversion had been performed by a Conservative Rabbi. That stated, the authority of the Rabbinate is not absolute, due to the complexity of the power-sharing agreement with the state and the so-called "Law of Return". There have been other groups of migrants to Israel whose Jewishness, by the terms set by the Orthodox Rabbinate, was dubious--e.g. many former Soviet Jews--but for whom the State found ways of bringing them in as citizens. Comparing the Lemba to the cases of Soviet Jews, some of whom only had patrilineal descent--and some of whom were even practicing Christians!--suggests strongly that Anti-Blackness is a factor in their treatment.

That stated, if this happens with a coherent grouping of people with cultural traditions linking them to Judaism, imagine then how much more difficult it would be for individual migrants, of African or Asian origins, to become Jews, either sincerely or for opportunistic reasons. The traditional religious restrictions on conversion, therefore, serve the Israeli state and Israeli capital, then, as a means of conserving and enforcing the precarity of migrant workers. Therefore, while migrants are in daily competition with Palestinian workers for labor and pay, both groups are oppressed by the same mechanisms of chauvinist exclusion. Another glaring example on this point: It is commonplace, on the part of Netanyahu, other right-wing Israeli politicians, and the media, to refer to refugees and asylum seekers from Africa as "infiltrators". The same Hebrew word, mistanenim, was used after 1948 to refer to Palestinian refugees who attempted to cross the "Green Line" armistice border, in most cases for reasons as innocuous as trying to return home or trying to tend the crops they had planted.

This chauvinist maltreatment, which treats all non-Jews a priori as "infiltrators" is not qualitatively different from what migrants face in most of the world's wealthy nations. But there are many ways in which migrant life in Israel is worse than in many other countries, and migrants have a grapevine of sorts.

Meanwhile, among the Jews of Israel, the Orthodox population is growing faster than the population as a whole. If there was ever a window of opportunity for undoing Ben Gurion's compromise with the Rabbinate, it closed long ago. Thus, so as long as Israel defines itself exclusively and primarily as a Jewish state, the Rabbinate's hold on matters such as marriage & migration is irrevocable. Thus migrant workers, Palestinians of all classes, and any Israeli Jew who chafes under the ingrained conservatism and violence of their society, has grounds to be opposed the Zionist (Jewish-chauvinist) nature of the State of Israel.

The comparative unpopularity of Israel as a destination country, and its internal political reasons for making itself hostile to migrants, means that migrants will never fully supplant Palestinian workers' important economic role. And this is a source of hope, because it means that Palestinian workers still have a great deal of power that has yet to be fully unleashed against the Israeli state and capital, as was shown by the one-day general strike earlier this week. I will not end this essay by pretending to have the answers to how that power can be unleashed or what those workers should fight for. But I don't see anything compatible with human dignity short of a single, democratic state, from the river to the sea. (I'd prefer no state at all, anywhere, but that's my inner Emma Goldman speaking.)

Sunday, April 25, 2021

A Note on the Futility of Social Democracy

A difference between political parties in (most) European countries and in the United States: In Europe, political parties are power apparatuses formed with the intentionality of exercising authority within the separate power apparatus of the State. In the United States, however, with State-controlled party registration and regulation, political parties function in effect as part of the State apparatus already. Using the Foucauldian diagram of the panopticon: In Europe, party leaders function as prison guards surveilling social movements, as practice for their hoped-for role of administering the broader surveillance of state power. (The example of Tsipras and Syriza in Greece is instructive in this respect.) In the United States, however, there is no practice period. The difference between party leadership, elected officialdom, and the state bureaucracy is rudimentary and functionalist. Different functions are often co-located in the same person. Parties both surveil and are surveilled.

It is this that indicates the futility of U.S. social democracy, in both its right- and left forms. Right social democracy is the “realignment” fantasy shared by the majority of the Democratic Socialists of America, as well as the CPUSA. In this fantasy, the Democratic Party would not cease to function as part of the state apparatus, but it would do so in a way that is better aligned with the desires captured by the social movements that it electorally exploits—the unionized fraction of the working class, and minoritized racial, ethnic, and gender groupings. Thus the movements must conservatize themselves in order to capture and radicalize the Democratic Party. In the process, the movements have in fact conservatized themselves, as in the case of Labor, nearly out of existence. Left social democracy is represented by those groupings who insist it is possible somehow for a “new” party to give genuine representation to the working class, on the model of European social democracy. In the current atmosphere of DSA hegemony on the left, this tendency is not as visible as it once was, but it can be seen in various DSA minority groupings, in the “left” Greens who want to make the Green Party into an explicitly socialist party (or who insist, based on tortured readings of various GP position papers, that it already is one!), and in a few small groupings, usually of Trotskyist origin, who proclaim the need for a “workers party”. Such groupings do not recognize the degree to which U.S. political parties differ in their relationship to the State apparatus from European ones, and share a utopian view of the European reality that is out of step with the experience of workers’ movements there.

This note is not a general statement on the “party-form.” Such a statement would require both more empirical research (e.g., on the varying relations of parties and states in Latin America and other portions of the “global South”) and theoretical rigor (describing the fundamentally carceral nature of the diagram of power on which various types of party formations are based). But it provides adequate evidence, for those with eyes to see, on the futility of continued reliance on party formations in two important geographical spaces, the U.S. and Europe. Unfortunately, it is a futility that continues to consume much of what passes for “the left.”

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Notes for a Post-Foucauldian Research Program in Gender and Sexuality

The Foucauldian equation of Power/Knowledge only works when those with power take responsibility. (Foucault would quibble with the idea of any identifiable grouping “having” power, so let us say, pedantically, those constituted by power as authoritative.) Ignorance can be a tool of heedless authority, a means by which it retains stability. Ignorance can be cultivated, preserved, guarded jealously.

From this it follows that the smooth circuit of power, knowledge, and pleasure which he postulates in Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality is invalid, even within the arbitrary (Eurocentric, Christocentric) civilizational constraints he imposes on that study. The pleasure of knowing does not exhaust the scope of pleasures that can be taken. Pleasure can be experienced in the absence not only of power but even of knowledge. By studying and naming a phenomenon, one has called it into discursive existence, but the means by which that phenomenon participates in power may come about through discursive practices other than the scientific (knowing). Ample historical evidence for each of these points exists in the generation and comprehension of minoritized genders and sexualities.

Further: Within that volume there is a self-contradiction, which may or may not be related to this. On the one hand, he claims that “Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations….” (Part Four, Chapter Two, “Method”, p. 94) And yet in his periodization of sexuality he argues that “sexuality is originally, historically bourgeois” and speaks of “the proletariat’s hesitancy to accept this deployment and its tendency to say that this sexuality was the business of the bourgeoisie and did not concern it” (Part Four, Chapter Four, “Periodization”, p. 127). This proletariat he describes speaks in an unusually (for Foucault, though not for vulgar Marxists) univocal manner, and does not seem to include, e.g., proletarian women who agitated for birth control technology. If we take seriously the notion that “power comes from below,” then we must consider the possibility that these women were advocating for pleasures (the least of which would be, the pleasure of not having to worry about having yet another child) regarded as unspeakable by the bourgeois knowledge of the time. They advocated for one knowledge—the recognition and regulation of one’s own menstrual cycle—against another—the demographic certainty with which the bourgeoisie hoped that the reproduction of the labor force could be regarded as a matter that “took care of itself,” part of the faux frais de la production.

Thus: A disjunction between power and pleasure, that took the temporary historical form of a quarrel between types of knowledge. One need not adhere to the repressive hypothesis which Foucault so thoroughly and effectively discredits, for the same historical evidence can show how the demands of pleasure were soon enough recuperated into the circuits of power, through the expansion and segmentation of the productive labor force and the commoditization of care work. But one can see here--and in many other places--how inadequate a framework for critical analysis Power/Knowledge is.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Structural Antisemitism of Cuomo's New COVID Maps

I want to emphasize structural here, because I am discussing how the methodology apparently used in formulation of these maps would have resulted in disparate outcomes that are detrimental to Haredi Jewish communities in ways that do not benefit public health independently of whether or not there was any intention, on the part of Governor Cuomo or others, to do so. (I have reasons to believe that there was a combination of spite, arrogance, and political pandering to antisemites at play, adding up to intentionality, which time permitting I will discuss in a separate post.) For now, though, let's look at the maps.

Based on Cuomo's own tweets, showing how lines of the various zones relate to the residential addresses of individual recent COVID cases, the approach seems to have been to draw the lines based on the density of of residential cases. Some of the absurdities of this have already been noted on Twitter. GIS geeks have pointed out that the lines do not follow streets, meaning that residents and business owners at the boundaries of different zones have to guess where they land and what restrictions they are subject to. As a result of that oversight, I noticed that the campus of Queens College, where I used to work, falls into three zones: A slice of yellow, a chunk of orange, and a sliver of red. A spokesman for St. John's University pointed out that they were 2/3 in Yellow, and 1/3 in the clear. No doubt the administrations of these institutions will be seeking clarity from the State government. The absurdity of Queens College is especially pointed, since it is not a residential institution--nobody lives there! So whoever drew the lines was clearly trying to create some sort of compact-looking boundary without taking account of the fact that they were cutting through a major institution of higher education.

The absurdities of the line-drawing exercise impact all New Yorkers, but the way they went about selecting where to draw the lines, by focusing on density and residential addresses, was bound to have a disparate impact on Haredi communities, who are more likely than most contemporary Americans to live in large, intergenerational households. They are also more likely to live in apartment-like structures than other groups. This helps account for why Cuomo's methodology resulted in more stark divisions in suburban areas, such as Orange and Rockland Counties, than in Brooklyn and Queens. In New York City, the family structures and residential buildings of non-Jewish (or non-Orthodox) neighbors are more likely to be similar to those of their Haredi neighbors than out here in the suburbs. (This has accounted for some of the negative response to Kiryas Joel here in Orange County, the fear that the Satmarim bring an urban lifestyle--and urban problems--to a setting that is mostly suburban, even partly rural.) But it is when we look at the reasons why Haredim have these lifestyle differences that we start to uncover how the methodology is also premised on fundamental misunderstandings of how contagious diseases spread.

Haredim are drawn to high density housing not because they like being on top of each other more than other people do, but because religious observance makes it convenient and desirable. On Shabbos and other major holidays, one must not drive, at all. Therefore it is necessary to live within walking distance of one's synagogue and mikveh (ritual bath). This also helps account for the relatively cramped family living quarters: While part of the appeal of this area was that relatively prosperous families are able to buy rather large houses at prices that are lower than most of the NY metropolitan area, most families in KJ are not so prosperous. Women with children, as a rule, don't work outside the home after their second child. If the husband works in a religious calling, those jobs do not tend to have much in the way of monetary compensation. The relatively prosperous families tend to be those with some sort of business. Businesses that cater specifically to the community, such as selling Judaica, preparing kosher foods, or clothing that matches the idiosyncrasies of custom, can only support so many. But even those who work in outward-facing businesses try to stay relatively close to home. It stands to reason: If you and your car must be home well before sunset on Friday evening, it would not be good to get stuck in traffic on the New York State Thruway. So as a rule, Haredim tend to stay relatively close to home: School-age children, as young as 3 years old, going to religious schools, women staying home with the younger ones, men working as close to home as possible, most business needs being tended to locally, without venturing very far afield for things such as diapers, prescriptions, or banking. There are exceptions to this, of course, but the exceptions prove the rule.

Contrast this with how my family lives. At this point, because of COVID, my kids rarely get to go anywhere other than their school buildings. In this respect they are, for better or worse, not so different from Satmar kids. However my partner works as a librarian at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie. She works from home 2-3 days a week, but is in her office, in the library, the remaining work days. We both make trips out for household necessities and, since the restrictions were loosened, some personal care. Most of these trips are local--Monroe, Harriman--but for some things we might end up in Cornwall, Beacon, Middletown, or even New Paltz. So if I got COVID, contact tracing would not remain local to the town of Woodbury and environs, but have to reach out to the staff of my butcher in Beacon, my liquor store in Cornwall, my hairdresser in New Paltz. If my wife got it, all of her coworkers at the Marist Library, who live scattered in various locations around the Hudson Valley, would have to be tested, along with possibly some faculty or students. And our family has been relatively cautious, compared to neighbors who are enjoying sporting activities and indoor dining.

Therefore what I submit is that, while the density of dots, individual cases, in Kiryas Joel looks very frightening--and it is very frightening!--the lesser density of cases in the surrounding "yellow" zones of Monroe and Woodbury, or even parts of these towns and surrounding areas that are subject to no new restrictions, is no cause for complacency, given the differences in lifestyle between a Satmar and an average non-Haredi American suburbanite. Cuomo and his supporters are boasting that the zones and restrictions are based on "science" and "data," but a real science-based, data-driven approach would not have focused not on where people with new COVID infections live but on where they likely got it. To estimate that would require a robust contact tracing program. And despite Cuomo's boasts that New York State's contact tracing is the "best in the country" (which I doubt), its data is apparently not robust enough to have allowed his administration to consider that as a possibility.

Thus, by focusing on residential address, Cuomo and his staff ended up taking an approach that ignores the realities of infectious disease transmission, in a way that was bound to come down heavier on Orthodox Jews than on most of their neighbors. Given the latter, it is no wonder that many Haredim feel that they are being discriminated against, which in turns makes it even more likely that people will rebel against the restrictions. This is particularly the case given the strictures on schooling and religious observance, which to such a community can appear as an attempt at cultural genocide. (Time permitting, I will make a future post explaining why this description is not hyperbole.) The maps and their underlying methodology are therefore structurally antisemitic--that is to say, they are antisemitic in effect regardless of the intentions of the people who drafted them--and detrimental to the public health aims they purport to serve.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Gender Trouble: A First Pass at a Few Frequently Asked Questions

If your pronouns are "he" or "they," does that mean you are still in some sense a man?

I never was a man. "Man" was an identity marker that I tried to live with and up to for a quarter century, at the expense of my sense of self and well-being. Including "he" in the options is a preemptive concession: I have been called "he/him" long enough that I am used to it, and if you are used to calling me that, I am signaling that I will not fight you over it. I will fight over other things. To be fair and complete, I would welcome "she/her" as well, if someone feels moved to refer to me thus, but I will not lay claim that up front in a quick introduction. Mostly because it feels potentially trivializing to trans sisters who identify as, are unequivocally, women, and who have had to struggle through more bureaucracy, medical intervention, social opprobrium, hatred and self-hatred, to claim that for themselves. "Genderfluid" means, sometimes I am predominantly masculine, sometimes predominantly feminine, sometimes--most often, in fact--some varied and varying mixture of the two, which can also mean, neither at all. It means you would need partial differential equations to describe my gender, and PDEs are sometimes insoluble. If you must encapsulate it in the symbolic order, then I'll borrow the words of Prince Rogers Nelson:

I'm not a woman, I'm not a man
I am something you will never understand

Or maybe you will. The scope of human understanding is growing, I hope and believe.

So, then, why aren't you changing your name?

The reasons are varied.

First, pragmatic: I already have a professional track record and publication history under this name.

Second, emotional: The great-grandfather after whom I am proximately named is one of the few people I am related to against whom I hold no grudge, perhaps because he died before I was born. And the biblical figure who is my ultimate namesake--the Joseph of Genesis, not the one of the "New Testament"--is a character with whom I have identified since I was a child. The wearer of the coat of many colors, the interpreter of dreams, sold into bondage by his brothers and escaping through wit and foresight. Read between the lines and you'll also see that he was queer as fuck.

Third, my habitual formality: Some have pointed out that "Jo" could be a shortened version of the name that would be readily perceived as ambiguous with respect to gender. But some of my earliest memories are of rejecting nicknames: Someone once called me "Joey," and I wailed that I was not a baby kangaroo. "Jo(e)" with or without the "e" (or, in the case of my spouse, with a macron and a final "h") signifies a level of emotional intimacy I allow only to a few--my partner, the best man at our wedding, my brother and sister, a small number of closest friends. If you feel close enough to me to try it, do so in my presence. If I look daggers through your chest, then kindly revert to Joseph. I certainly will not allow the state or its agents that sort of counterfeit intimacy.

Lastly, and perhaps most potently, my stubbornness: My name has been defying expectations since I was born, thanks to my surname. Tomaras "doesn't sound Jewish," and for those in the know--mostly Greeks--it is recognizably Greek, which because of the religious construction of Greek identity around the Orthodox church also implies "not Jewish" (never mind that there have been Greek-speaking Jews in the territory known as Greece since well before Saul set out on the road to Damascus, let alone changed his name and started writing epistles). Through the stubborn fact of my existence it has become a Jewish name. This is why I won't change my surname, even though it marks a patriarchal inheritance that I loathe, or rather, precisely because it does. My pappou, a fascist and a wellspring of hereditary trauma, boasted of having traced the family line back 600 years to an eponymous mountain in northern Greece. For a grandchild bearing that name to be a queer, Jewish communist is like a well-placed gob of spit in his eye. If through my stubbornness (and fecundity) I have made Tomaras into a Jewish name, perhaps through similar stubbornness I can get people accustomed to thinking of "Joseph" as a name that does not necessarily imply male gender.

I said there would be things I would fight about.

So if you're nonbinary, why are you taking hormones?

I am taking hormones because I am nonbinary. I am thankful to a transmasculine friend who, in a conversation about my elder child, mentioned that this could even be a possibility. That got me thinking. It has been difficult for me to look into a mirror for the last decade. I have always strongly resembled my father. About ten years ago, I reached the age that he was when he started regularly abusing me, and the resemblance became uncanny, frightening. If hormone therapy has no other effect than to lessen this, then that would be sufficient. Better fit into a wider range of clothing would, over the long term, be an additional desired effect. I am already seeing psychological effects--which may be due to the hormones, or may be due to the placebo effect, but even if it's the latter, placebo effects are real and medically measurable. I had not fully anticipated these effects, such as more spontaneous demonstrative emotion with my spouse and kids, but they are desirable. The tablets cost me about 12 cents each. Given all that, why wouldn't I?

You're unemployed right now. Couldn't doing this, and being so public about it, complicate your job search?

You know what's really complicating my job search? The fact that we're heading into an overdue global depression, which in the United States has been compounded and accelerated by a completely botched public health response to COVID-19.

In the course of the career that I stumbled into, grant administration, I have enabled the organizations that have employed me to obtain and manage about $60 million. In that time period, my total compensation has been less than 2% of that figure. Any organization that would overlook that because a quick Google search uncovered information about my gender identity and presentation is not only bigoted, but will ultimately suffer for it. And if the economic crisis, the public health crisis, my own openness, and the foolishness of others ultimately do prevent me from securing a new job in that field, then I will not be sad to leave it behind in favor of something else.

I have various possibilities in mind. One would be focusing on writing. In the last week I have started work on a novel, and seem to be making interesting progress with it. To stand out from crowd among writers requires at least one of these three things: attractive youth, genius, or outrageousness. Youth is a thing of the past for me. Up to now I have not applied myself sufficiently to writing to be able to make a plausible claim for genius. So outrageousness it is.

Does the novel you're working on have anything to do with gender?

Of course it does, silly! A smart person once wrote that "race is the modality through which class is lived." Along the lines of that thought, one can say that gender is the attentional frame through which any experience at all can be said to be lived. (Yes, my vulgar-Marxist friends, that does imply that gender precedes class. Please re-read your Engels before you protest.) The novel is a genre of writing which treats lived experience as its medium. Every novel, inasmuch as it succeeds as a novel, is "about" gender, whether its jacket copy says so or not, much as epic poetry is always "about" divinity, tragedy is always "about" fate, and lyric poetry is always "about" beauty.

But beyond this truism, two of the three main characters are trans. It is based loosely on an unpublished short story of mine. Reflecting on why that story failed, I realized that one of its weaknesses was that its main character was too close a mimickry of the sad man I was trying and failing to be in my 30s. I have successfully written stories around characters like that, but usually only by giving them some sick twist. This character, by adhering too closely to its model, ended up being merely pathetic. Another failing was that another character had come to a sad end that was too abrupt. I realized that I could deal neatly with both these failures by making both characters trans, but that the structural changes this would entail to the story would necessitate a much longer arc. Hence, a novel.