oh bother, part 7

As seen in the Kmart Blue Friday door buster ad: The Huffy Major Flirt Bike for GIRLS and the Huffy Major Trouble Bike for BOYS. The bikes are in the bottom right corner of the flyer.


There are many ways that I could discuss why the names of the bikes bother me. But, because this is an “oh bother” post, I won’t get into any lengthy dissertation on the bothersome reduction of boys to Trouble and girls to Flirt or the problematic way these labels, and the ideologies about “proper” boy and girl behavior that undergird them, hail us into existence as real boys who use our bikes to get into trouble or as real girls who use our bikes to flirt (yes, I did just reference Althusser and his account of interpellation!).

There is one point I would like to make. I was initially thinking of posing the question: Just who does Huffy (the maker of these bikes) imagine a 3-6 year old girl to be flirting with? But instead of focusing on that question and the problematic ways naming a bike “Major Flirt,” could contribute to the over-sexualizing of very little girls, I want to offer another way in which to bother/be bothered by the label. According to dictionary.com, flirt is described as: merely playing with, not taking seriously, and showing only superficial interest without commitment. What stereotypes of little girls do these definitions of flirt (as superficial, etc) reinforce? Oh bother!

Being in trouble vs. Beings in trouble: Is there a difference?

What is the difference between being in trouble (the verb: to be) and a being in trouble (the noun: a being)? In Judith Butler’s arguments for pushing at the limits of our most sure ways of knowing, she often focuses on characters (like Antigone or David Reimer or Venus Xtravaganza) who embody those limits and who serve as allegories (figures/symbols) for those limits in crisis. For Butler, critically exploring these limit cases can disrupt any easy reading of them and can generate important conversations about how norms are constructed in ways that “produce, reproduce, deproduce” what counts as “human” and/or a livable life.

But, what is at stake for those folks who live at the limits when they are held up as productive examples for being in (and making) trouble? Should they function as the main characters for our narrative/s about how to make and be in trouble? If so, how might our understanding of their lives be reduced to how they allegorize/symbolize/demonstrate the limits of discourse?

prosserIn my Queering Theory class, we read Jay Prosser’s critique of Judith Butler (in Second Skins) last week. Prosser writes about Butler’s discussion of Venus Xtravaganza, a Latina transsexual (Prosser’s description) in the documentary Paris is Burning. He argues that Butler envisions Venus’ tragic death (presumably killed because of her failure to fully pass as a real woman) as central to her argument for drag as ambivalent (and potentially, but not definitively, subversive and transgressive). I was particularly struck by Prosser’s statement on page 275:

Butler’s essay locates transgressive value in that which makes the subject’s real life most unsafe.

The problem here, according to Prosser, is that using beings who are in trouble as the location where new queer theories can be produced often fails to take into consideration how the actual bodies of those beings in trouble experience and precariously inhabit those troubled positions. While I don’t agree with Prosser’s assessment of Butler, I do think that focusing on beings in trouble (as a location for critique, source for new knowledge, an object of and raw material for new theories) can be problematic. Maybe we should distinguish between being in trouble which focuses on actions of making trouble and beings in trouble which focuses on persons who embody troubled/troubling positions. How could queering theory be understand and produced differently if we emphasized the former instead of the latter?

Making Trouble as Reaching Too Far

Yesterday in my Queering Theory course, we discussed making trouble. Making trouble comes in a lot of forms. In fact, there are so many different ways to think about making trouble that you could teach a whole class (and more than once) on the topic and barely scratch the surface (oh wait–that’s what I’m doing!). But seriously, the abundance of themes/topics/readings that fit in this category is making it difficult (troubling?) for me to narrow down my reading list for my troublemaking class next semester. But I am not complaining; trying to choose between too many ideas and really interesting books is a nice problem to have.

Nobody PassesAnyway, back to the point of this entry. For our discussion in Queering Theory yesterday, I chose Mattilda’s Nobody Passes. While this book offers one notion of troublemaking in terms of anti-assimilation and rejection, it does so in a wide range of ways by broadly interrogating the idea of passing and not passing in terms of “the ‘right’ gender, race, class, sexuality, age, ability, body type, health status, ethnicity–or as a member of the coolest religion, political party, social/educational institution, exercise trend, fashion cult, or sexual practice” (9). Some may argue that this broad approach is too broad, as Mattilda’s editor Brooke does when she tells Mattilda that “she’s worried that I’m [Mattilda] compromising the integrity of the book by ‘reaching too far beyond the parameters we’ve tried to establish'” (13). But Mattilda sees her broad reach as central to the book’s purpose. She writes:

the point of this book is to make people reach too far, to roll into critical, complicated, dissonant essays that grumble with uncomfortable revelation (13).

I like this idea of reaching too far. I especially like the inclusion of “too.” Reaching too far isn’t just a matter of stretching ourselves to think beyond what we know (to reach far). Reaching too far is about going past our limits in ways that may make trouble for us, but can also create connections and new possibilities for understanding and living in the world.

imagesAs I reflect on it more, the idea of reaching too far seems different than merely rejecting oppressive institutions or norms or ideologies. Instead of rejection, Mattilda seems to be engaged in transgression (as in crossing over and beyond). The idea of reaching too far as transgression reminds me of Foucault’s discussion of the limit-attitude in “What is Enlightenment?” Here is what he writes about it:

This philosophical ethos may be characterized as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analyzing and reflecting upon limits….The point, in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over (315).

[the limit-attitude must be understood as one in which the] critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them (319).

I need to think through how to read Mattilda’s project in relation to Foucault’s limit attitude. How might thinking about nobody passes as a transgression instead of rejection shape our reading of Mattilda’s introduction (and the collection as a whole) differently? What are the differences between transgression and rejection?

36112119Note: As I was thinking about transgression and rejection, I came across a book by Ashley Tauchert, Against Transgression. I plan to check it out from the library today. In reading through the description, I was particularly intrigued by these three purposes of the book: 1. studies the origins of the contemporary proliferation of ‘Transgression’ in the compelling thought experiments of Georges Bataille, and follows its inauguration as a mode of legitimate critical practice via Michel Foucault; 2. tracks the author’s rejection of Transgression as a legitimate critical methodology following her mother’s death and her own maternal transfiguration; and 3. considers the place of grief in the transformation of thought.

Does troubling virtue = valuing vice? And other questions about vice and virtue, part 1

Note: Having just finished this entry after almost 4 days of deliberating over how to frame it and what to write, I feel compelled to comment on my blogging process. I am not sure if this entry makes sense, but it has been incredibly productive for me as I attempt to place my own thinking about virtue ethics and troublemaking in a larger context. Writing this entry has enabled me to clarify my thinking, generated a lot of new questions and sources, and has fueled my passion for troubling virtue ethics. Cool. This entry is one reason why I love blog writing.

Way back at the end of May, I wrote a rather lengthy entry about Peter Sagal’s book, The Book of Vices. I had a big problem with a key passage in his introduction:

In the long war between Vice and Virtue, Virtue has been met on the battlefield, routed, defeated in detail, occupied, and reeducated in prison camps. When last seen, Virtue was working on the Strip in Las Vegas, handing out color flyers advertising in-room exotic dancers. She says she’s happy, but she doesn’t meet your eyes (2).

I don’t want to rehash my argument in this entry. Instead, I want to take up the question of what happens to virtue when we trouble it (queer it? displace it? pose problems to it? jam its codes? rework it)? Does the troubling of virtue necessarily lead to the valuing of vice? What is/should be the relationship between virtue and vice? And what kind of virtue (or vice?) is troublemaking?

But first, back to Sagal. In Sagal’s passage, virtue has been overtaken (corrupted?) by vice. The moral system has been reversed, with vice replacing virtue as the guiding force for many Americans’ excessive and immoral behaviors. Sagal’s reversal of moral codes is not meant so much as a valuing of vice (or especially those practices, identities, or communities that are understood to be vices), but a mocking of virtue and those individuals who promote it but fail to practice it.

1There are many reasons why I find this approach problematic. One key reason: it uses practices that are deemed vices, and the individuals/communities who practice them, as the raw material and the evidence for mocking conservative values. And who, quite frequently, are these folks (that is, the raw material)? Radical sex workers or individuals or communities who engage in non-heteronormative (queer?) sex practices. That’s right,  all of those people whose sexual practices fall outside of the inner charmed circle that Gayle Rubin discusses in “Thinking Sex“.  Because of their improper (deviant) practices these folks are understood as having fully rejected virtues and any “proper” moral codes. In Sagal’s version of virtue and vice, with vice vanquishing virtue, those who are relegated to the vice category seem not only to be in opposition to ethics, but serve as the proof that ethics/virtues have failed or no longer exist.

But what would happen if we thought about those practices that have been labeled vices as having some ethical content? Could it be possible to claim them as virtues and as part of the foundation for a new sort of ethics? Or, could it be possible to resignify (or maybe disidentify) with the category of vice–to inhabit it, but use it differently by reclaiming it or reimagining it as ethically valuable? Is this what Michael Warner is attempting to do in The Trouble with Normal with his ethics of shame?

Okay, in asking this question about Warner I realized that I needed to go back and revisit what he actually says about an ethics of shame, so I re-skimmed the first chapter of The Trouble with Normal. Very useful.

One way to think about vice as ethically valuable is to open up the category of virtue to a much wider range of possibilities for what counts as virtuous practices (So, those practices formerly deemed vices would be re-imagined as virtues–practices like fist-fucking.) Some might ask: Does this lead to unbridled relativism and moral chaos, where any and all practices (as long as some folks like doing them!) are morally acceptable? Gayle Rubin, in “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory and the Politics of Sexuality” understands this question to come out of a belief in the “domino theory of sexual peril” and the “fear that if anything is permitted to cross this erotic DMZ [the line between proper and improper sexual practices], the barrier against scary sex will crumble and something unspeakable will skitter across” (Rubin, 14). This fear of relativism and the loss of morals, leads many to conclude that lines must be drawn (and strictly adhered to) between what is proper behavior (virtue) and what is improper behavior (vice).

But Michael Warner, in his ethics of shame, sees the expanding of morality (virtue) differently. Framing his discussion of it in terms of sexual autonomy and dignity, he writes:

Sexual autonomy has grown…by making room for new freedoms, new experiences, new pleasures, new identities, new bodies–even if many of us turn out to live in the old ones without complaining.…Pleasures once imaginable only with disgust, if at all, become the material out of which individuals and groups elaborate themselves (12).

trouble_with_normal_cover1For Warner, sexual autonomy is about dignity and one’s humanity (Judith Butler’s ideas about the livable life and the human are echoing in my head right now) and is central to an ethical project based on morality and not moralism (where sexual practices and tastes are mandated for everyone). This ethical project uses practices/communities that engage in “shameful” acts as the raw material (not a la Sagal, for jokes proving how corrupt we are all) for an ethics of dignity, autonomy and (human) community.

So, Warner envisions an ethics that is grounded in shame, disgust, repulsion, embarrassment. Aren’t those the emotions we are supposed to feel when we recognize that our practices are vices instead of virtues? Interesting…

But, wait, it gets better. Consider what Warner writes about dignity, indignity and shame. Distancing his understanding of dignity from the “bourgeois propriety” version of it in which dignity is assigned to only some sex practices (heterosexual, private, loving), “as long as they are out of sight” (37), Warner imagines rethinking (resignifying/disdentifying with) dignity through indignity. He describes this as a queer ethic of dignity in shame:

If sex is a kind of indignity, then we’re all in it together. And the paradoxical result is that only when this indignity of sex is spread around the room, leaving no one out, and in fact binding people together, that it begins to resemble the dignity of the human (36).

0415969239Wow! How come I didn’t see this passage before? Pondering this significance of Warner’s claim, I am reminded of Butler’s idea of being undone by others. What connections and/or disconnections do we see between envisioning indignity (shame, disgust, could we include failure here?) as the foundation for our humanity (Warner) and understanding our subjectivity (and humanity) to be predicated on our vulnerability and undone-ness (Butler)? I need to think about this some more–I want to read Warner’s claim as being more than a call for those who are labeled undignified or disgusting to develop coalitions (even though this is important); I want to think about it as a call for a new version of humanity and a new vision of ethics–one that resignifies and claims vice (disgust, shame, failure) as virtue.

This resignifying of vice is not a mere reversal of the virtue/vice binary so that what we think to be bad is actually good, and what we think is good is actually bad. And, it is not just an expansion of the list of virtues to include those things that have been previously understood to have no ethical content (only in opposition to ethics).  So, what is it?

To be continued…