Naked Image

When I was last at the Tate Modern, I saw some video by Francesca Woodman from the 1970’s. She had a piece where she had stretched butcher paper in front of the large window of her loft. Light was shining through the window and through the paper. She stood naked behind the paper, so that her silhouette was visible and drew on the paper from behind. Then she tore the paper in a kind of provocative way, revealing increasing sexualized parts of her own body, until finally she stepped through it, tearing it all away and walking off frame.
I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot. I was first drawn to it because of the attractiveness of the artist, but the viewer is being asked to consider several things. By drawing on the paper, I think she was trying to create an idea of it as a canvas. We have a cultural idea that artists express themselves in a pure, cerebral form through their art. The canvas becomes almost an extension of self – but specifically, a very dualist kind of self. The canvas is not about the body, but about the mind.
Hélène Cixous argues that all binary oppositions eventually come back to gender. So when we put mind and body into opposition, immediately, we assign one of them to male. And, indeed, historically (and currently, alas) men are mind and women are body. These oppositions are also an implicit comparison, so the mind is more noble and pure than the body. The (male) artist is thus a triumph of masculinity. He expresses the true, the valuable and the pure of himself through his canvas. But if this is implicitly masculine, then women have greatly reduced access. They’re not artists, they’re women artists and that’s something different. Their body is thus always made visible, not just because it’s a site of difference, but because women are presumed to entirely be of and about the body.
By allowing light to filter around her naked body and through the canvas, Woodman makes this explicit in her work. The strip-tease aspect of her tearing makes a connection to sex and femininity even more explicit and invites a feminist analysis. Her drawings are torn to bits to reveal her body / herself, which / who then leaves. She breaks down the mind/body dichotomy, and, in so doing, her work is placed in the male gaze, which is not a site of empowerment. But she remains in control. There is no operator behind the camera. She controls what we see and when we see it, as much as she can, since the paper tears in unpredictable ways. By working within the male gaze, she makes it visible to the viewer.
I was also drawn to the aesthetics of the piece. It’s shot in her home. The attachment of the paper is ad hoc. The video is actually a series of takes. She tried this multiple times and put several of them on the finished tape. I like the experimental nature of it. I like that it’s about process. I think the aspect of it being in her home, which is an intimate setting (I mean that the way that small chamber music venues are described as intimate). She lets us into her life in a small way to make a statement about herself, her art and art in general.
I also admire her courage. There’s no metaphor for being naked on camera because it is the metaphor. She is actually uncovered, but never uncomfortable. It’s amazing.
So as I begin to think about making little films, I keep thinking of hers. I also think of her relationship to her body and the camera. I’ve spent most of my life striving to remain covered, living in my head. I don’t think I have the “wrong body,” but I think my identity was at odds with aspects of my body – not even in a way that I’ve been fully aware of. Which is to say, being naked on camera is not something I would ever have considered in a million years. No. No. No. What are you kidding? It’s another door that was closed – right next to all the doors that disallow crossdressing. These doors are starting to open for me. (Note that they should never have been closed in the first place.)
I’m working on a video of me giving myself a shot. It is uncovering. I thought of her video for courage to continue. My nakedness, though, is metaphorical. Do I want to put out there a picture of me in my bed room? Hesitating? Pausing? Failing?
Why do I want to do it? I have no idea. I try to get things out of my head sometimes and if you that with art, then how you do it is by putting it in other people’s heads. What does it feel like to have your identity hinge on an injection when you have a fear of needles? Well, here’s one answer.
I’m considering doing a piece with a bunch of still photos, slowly fading from one to another. In them I would be in the same location, in the same pose. I would start wearing a suit, hat and jacket and in each picture, remove one item until I was wearing nothing. (Why do I want to do it? I have no idea.)
I pass when I’m clothed. People see me as a man, which is what I want. But I’ve only done hormones and only for a few months. My body is ambiguous. Not even as ambiguous as I would like. It would be a stripping away of identity and of self. (Why do I want to do it? I have no idea.)
What is sex? What is gender? They’re both culturally constructed. My very body is queer now. I call all of these oppositions into question just by existing. My queer self is inscribed on my person, on my physical being.
I don’t want to be a shock value, though. I don’t want to be daytime TV. I don’t want to be a women’s glossy mag. I don’t want to be a bad joke. I want to be a person, clothed or unclothed. Woodman was dealing with the same sort of issues in her work, about how her image is transmitted and received. She can’t control what the perceiver thinks. Somebody like me could come up to it and think , “ooh, hot woman.” But if that person engages the work, they walk away with more than that. She does with pacing, timing, repetition of the same scenario. She’s got some advantage over me in that we, as a culture, acknowledge that cisgender women’s bodies exist.
So, I don’t know if it’s a good idea. I’m looking for thoughts.

Socialization and Narratives

Socialization is the name for a training process in which the subject is taught their place in the world and how to get along within it. I had to socialize my dog. Now she knows not to run over to children and sniff them enthusiastically and not to panic when a loud motorcycle goes by and to stay quiet and inconspicuous at cafés. She’s a good dog.
We also do this to kids. The effects on kids is a bit more subtle than the effects on dogs. My dog has internalized her training to the point where I don’t need to pay too much attention to her, I can trust that she’s doing the right thing. I’ve given her a bunch of commands and corrections and now she just knows the drill. But I don’t think she puts these in a lager context of categorization. She doesn’t think about how there might be different sets of rules for people and dogs, she just knows what she’s supposed to do. This is a fundamental difference between dogs and people, I think.
Because when people are getting socialized, a big part of it is teaching the categories. This is how girls sit properly. This is how boys sit properly. You are a girl. He is a boy. You sit like this. He sits like that. And that’s how we learn manners, by which I mean limitations. And since girls are generally given more limitations than boys, we call that “female socialization,” something which can be considered extremely important in gender theory.
Everybody learns that girls have more limitations. There’s a question as to how it’s internalized. If you believe yourself not to be a girl, this will be something that applies to other people. If you believe yourself to be a girl, then you lower your expectations and diminish your horizons. This sucks, by the way. We should get rid of it.
It’s also very external, though. Even if you know in your heart that you’re meant to go do boy things and these rules were not made for you, if other people see you as a girl, then you’re going to run into limitations. When patriarchy tells you that you can’t possibly succeed in math or technology (because you’re a girl), they don’t both to first find out if you really ID as a girl, they just say you suck.
When patriarchy gives encouragement to the schemes and dreams of boys, they don’t bother trying to figure out which girls might turn out to be boys, they just tell everyone they think is a girl to dream smaller.
When patriarchy constructs gender as a binary of winner/loser, good/bad, male/female (to paraphrase Helène Cixous), they don’t excuse people who don’t fit on their assigned side. Hell, they batter them down harder. Butch girls and women actually face increased sexism, not decreased, according to study data. And oh my god, do femme boys face abuse.
This was my childhood experience of being perceived as female: being told that I’m weaker and more feminine and therefore less. So I tried harder, which, alas, did not help.
This is not why I’m transitioning. This is why I held off for so many years. If all of femininity is weakness and limitation, then obviously, I must not really be trans, I must just want to escape smaller horizons. That’s what I told myself.
It occurred to me a few days ago that there’s got to be more to it than that. If that’s all there is to womanhood, why would anybody do it? Mtfs fight to be women. Compared to the population of cisgender women, there aren’t very many ftms. There must be something positive about womanhood. Cisgender women must find something fulfilling in it or they would quit. Socialization is subtle and powerful, but it’s not magic.
And I remember Sara telling me how she was confused by my wanting to be a boy because it’s so great to be a girl. Huh. Really? So I posted a question on the internets. What’s so great about it? There must be something good. I drew strength from solidarity with other dykes and women (well, the women who weren’t normative at me). But that’s not very much positive in the face of a whole lot of negative. What did I miss?
It’s a tough question, but I got answers. Many of them were about solidarity and talked about relationships, but not specific to the gender of the subject, only the object. But some, like “not shaving or shaving one’s legs skipping the make-up or wearing it wearing jeans or a skirt or nothing at all” all hint at a freedom to optionally express femininity. And “breasts” which indicates a physical state of secondary sex characteristics. And, I’m going to guess that the major positives are these: socially allowable femininity and a body that conforms to your identity. Which is logical. What else could it possibly be?
This femininity is socially allowable because it’s inhabited by female bodies. Feminine men face even more reprimand then masculine women. And of course, there’s the body – which is what transition changes. The mind stays the same. And this is part of what makes my friends’ sense of loss confusing. Because we profess to care more about what’s in people’s minds than their body. And we do, probably. So it’s losing somebody from your team who is going to play for a different team.
But even the body isn’t all that changed. Small differences in muscles and weight. Hair growing. Squarer chin. Lower voice. It’s all very subtle. A UK glossy magazine was trying to do a story on ftms, including me, but it’s going to die, I think. The editor wants before and after shots – something dramatic. But there’s nothing to give her. I was masculine before and I’m masculine now. But there’s a narrative she wants to confirm: one of a rigid binary. It can’t possible be safe and easy to slip across a porous border to inhabit a more livable side. Transition must be medically dangerous and a last resort, preceded by uncontrollable sobbing. Changes must be dramatic and reinforce the idea of a high fence.
But the real story is so much more subtle. One of my friends, who is sad about this told me that I had been the most androgynous person she’d ever met. But in the present, I’m just masculine and male and not androgynous at all. I haven’t changed. Only these subtle tings with square jaws,muscles and vocal pitch have changed. I was never androgynous. My body was suffused with social baggage. It whispered lies about me. The only thing androgynous was my deafness to it’s imperatives. I’m tall and slender. There’s some irony that women are conditioned to long for what I had and didn’t want. Skinny limbs. Long eyelashes. My grandmother always said I could have been a model. All I would have needed was a whole new personality.
It’s easier now, when I look in the mirror and the image reflected back at me doesn’t call me a liar. I’ve always been masculine, but now it’s easier to inhabit and embody. I don’t have to fight for my identity and the superficial tokens to represent it, like hair and clothes. I don’t have to fight the social message me body transmits. I don’t have to compensate and hide. All of this and some facial hair too. It feels like everything has changed. But on the other hand, it feels like nothing has changed. On a real level, nothing has. I write music. I go to school. I walk my dog. My life is the same except that it’s not.
When I was a youth, I asked the scout leader if I could join the Cub Scouts. I know they didn’t have any girls, but the boy scout activities seemed more like what I was looking for than did the girl scouts. The scout leader laughed. When I was a couple years older, my church youth group sent two representatives to ask if girls could be altar servers. The priest laughed at them and they came back and shared the news with the rest of us. When I was 14, I asked the football coach if I could try out for the team. It seemed like fun and I knew that girls could sometimes be kickers or in other non-tackled positions. He laughed.
And now I’m a part of this group that spent so much time laughing at me. I don’t know how much I internalized female socialization. I was always convinced that these limitations should not apply to me because I didn’t want them. But they did limit me. I got hairdryers for gifts when my brother got tools.
I’m going the end of next month to something called ETC in Amsterdam. It’s a gathering for women and gender minorities. I feel kind of awkward about going to be in a women’s space, even as I insist that I’m basically unchanged from when I went last year. I think the point of these kinds of spaces is solidarity. Everybody there has been on the losing side of Cixous’ binary. We’ve all all been perceived as the other. The non-man, non-default, alien – the losing side of the binary. That’s what we’re combatting and that experience itself is what qualifies people for membership. To me it seems obvious that these kinds of spaces would be open to transgender people.
If I don’t feel like I fit in, well, there’s the dramatic change that the glossy magazine wants and the loss for my old friends grieve and part of the awesomeness of being girl slipped away. And maybe then I’ll see that the binary is as hard to cross as they say. But I think it will be ok. I don’t want to dream smaller.

Racism vs Sexism: This is not a Contest!!

I’ve talked before about why I like Obama. It was mostly emotional. He talks about the future. He links it with the civil rights struggles of the past. He invokes destiny and progress in nifty ways. A big component of this is that he stays positive. His charisma is a whole big ball of being positive.
When he gave a speech on MLK day talking about the need for queer equality, that was a strong statement and it was specifically against the queerphobia found in some black churches. But it was positive all the way. He’s a uniter. Emotionally, he tells folks they’re wrong without ever telling them that they’re wrong. It’s like he’s got a great big tent set up and keeps inviting people in. And he’s not telling folks that they’re wrong as much as he’s asking them to scoot over a bit to make some room for the new folks coming into the tent.
I wish everybody on the Democratic side would stay positive. Not just the candidates, but everybody. When pundits or whoever try to frame this as white women against black men, that especially gets my hackles up. Sexism and racism are related. It’s not meaningful to argue about which is worse. Historically, advances for People of Color have been linked with advances for women. The same folks who worked to end slavery worked on suffrage. Many of the same folks who worked in the civil rights movement worked in the women’s rights movement.
Ok, not everybody who is anti-racist is anti-sexist. And not every feminist anti-racist. That second case is getting a lot of attention right now. White, second wave feminists tended to ignore black women’s issues and write about white women as if all women were white. Some of these folks are writing op-eds now that have this same problem and it’s incredibly annoying. Gloria Steinem wrote a piece that, yikes, I wish she hadn’t written it. Unfortunately, though, when folks react to this kind of op-ed, well, their reactions can be problematic too. Instead of arguing with the specific author or even the school of thought of the author or even second wave feminism in general, they paint with a broader brush. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to blame all of second wave feminism. There were influential and important black women in the movement. And, with a broader brush, I really don’t think it’s fair to blame all feminism. Third wave feminists are specifically anti-racist and feature more contributions of POC writers and also tend not to see things solely in terms of white vs black. (Shockingly, there are additional races in America.) I know third wave feminism has it’s own problems which will probably seem glaring in a generation, but right now, there’s a conscious effort to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, especially in regards to racism and homophobia, etc. Going yet another step further, it’s really, really unfair to blame white women in general as a group.
There are pundits on TV that start talking about white women as if they’re a homegenius group of suburban, middle class soccer moms, all implicitly or explicitly racist. Many of these pundits are white men! Yo! Get off the high ground, Mr. Chauvinist Pig! Right, contrary to what many seem to think, white women vary in age from 18 to over 100. They vary in income from grinding poverty to extreme wealth. They live in rural areas, in the city, in the suburbs. Not all of them are, will be, or want to be moms, soccer or not. Not all are straight. Not all are cisgender. So white, male pundits, complaining about racism, treat white women as a big group of identical, interchangeable, (not quite) people. Ironic!
The brilliant part about this is that it lets white men off the hook. Who profits when the disadvantaged fight each other instead of the advantaged?
So, can we all stop arguing about whether racism is “worse” than sexism or vice versa? They’re different beasts! But they serve the same purpose of maintaining inequality and keeping the rulers up top. Instead, let’s talk about who is going to help the most.
Position-wise, Obama and Clinton are pretty much identical on feminist issues. I don’t want to cal them “women’s issues,” because it’s kind of foolish to assume that these issues only effect women. If abortion is illegal, that increases unwanted fatherhood, not just unwanted motherhood. Every man that’s tied economically to a women gets hurt by income inequality. Heterosexual men don’t bear many of the direct costs of sexism, but they bear costs. Feminist issues are good for everybody, not just for women. And Obama and Clinton are both great on feminist issues. A single-issue voter can go for either of them and end up doing well policy-wise. Of course, somebody who actually IS a woman, well, if I were a single-issue voter, that would push it over the edge for me.
But, position-wise, Obama and Clinton are not equal on race issues. An anti-racist, single-issue voter would pick Obama.
There are a lot of reasons to back Clinton. There are a lot of reasons to back Obama. There are other policy differences,although not overly many. How about we keep it positive, eh? And can we lay off white women? (If we start in on sexist black men . . . .oy, let’s not do that.)

Public Service Announcement

For all of you who switched your registration to vote on Super Tuesday, don’t forget to switch back to the Green Party. We need you to stay on the ballot, not just in national races, where maybe voting Green isn’t s useful, but in local races. We’ve got folks in state legislatures. We almost got mayor of San Francisco. Stay Green!

Book Review: Strong Imagination

Before I begin, I want to share that the reason that I have time to type a book review is that my mixing board is not broken at all. You may recall that I mentioned earlier that my synth got battered in shipping. This caused some of the jacks to get bent so they weren’t making good contact, which is easily fixable. So all is well.

Last spring, when I was whining about being on a really long waiting list to see a shrink, my friend Vivian gave me a book called Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature by David Nettle, which explores a link between insanity and creativity, just as the name implies. Nettle makes a convincing case regarding the nature and cause of madness. To briefly summarize: madness of all forms has both a genetic and an environmental component. In cases where of identical twins, when one becomes schizophrenic, the other has a 50% of becoming so also. This is a much higher risk than the general population, but still only half. Factors that can push people over the edge include divorce, death of a family member, social isolation (say, from moving far away) and basically everything else in my life that’s happened to me since 2002. I really like this part of the book because it makes me feel like I’m super together for not being more crazy.
Ok, since going mad is a huge problem, why do these genes persist in the population? Well, that twin who doesn’t go mad is likely to do very well in life. People who have increased risk for insanity tend to excel, especially in creative persuits. He then broke down mental illness by profession. Poets are just nuts. Alas, for poets. Next in line are musicians, especially composers. And it goes through all the creative fields and then into more practical ones.
The author sees two primary classes of mental illness. One is schizophrenia, and the other is a polar disorder. What he means by polar disorder is people whose emotions tend to run out of balance. So he’s grouping depressives and bipolar people together and argues how they’re related on a neurotransmitter level. He claims that depressives also have periods of peaks, but they don’t get as out of control as people who are bipolar. While schizoid personality types are good for creative thinking, the periods of peaks (short of mania) for people with polar disorders tend to be good for getting work done. He specifically mentions composers here. Especially in the old days of ensemble writing, before MIDI realizations, composers would have to write things and then wait months or years to hear it. A sane person doesn’t go into work that’s so thankless and so short of rewards. Most people need positive stimuli more often to keep working on something.
He never mentions anxiety disorder, aside from in his list of mental illness by profession, but from other reading, I know it’s strongly linked to depression and the same drugs are used to treat it. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced the highs of creative energy that he described. I do know that I tend to be overly pleased with myself. I always thought of this as some sort of personality flaw, but I guess it’s essential to my line of work. Also, the way I approach composition is more praise-seeking than the old way. What better way to get positive feedback than through commissions? I get a vote of confidence when people ask for one and then (so far) specific praise for the output that I deliver. And while I hate performing, I do it anyway because I like the attention. I’ve written pieces of music performed by others and then sat in the audience and listened. Fewer people come up to talk to me afterwards. And, most importantly, this does not get me chicks like performing does. But more on that last part in a bit.
So Nettle makes a convincing case that the genes associated with certain types of mental illness are also correlated with creative output, which explains why they persist in the population despite their huge liability. Appreciation of creative endeavors is a human universal. In every society that has ever existed, poetry and music have been considered important. Anthropologists have never found a group of people without music and without poetry. Even in societies where survival is difficult and everyone works at acquiring food (ie, no specialization of labor), poetry and music are valued. And people who are good at poetry or music get high prestige. Even if they have a bad time of it for a while, people will donate food. Creative output is essentially human, much more so than using tools or the other ways we’ve sought to set ourselves apart form other animals.
Nettle then goes on to ask a much deeper question: why do humans value creativity? Here, he turns to evolutionary theory. Male peacocks have crazy tails. You’ve seen them. It requires a huge number of extra resources to keep those tails looking good. A male with an especially nice looking tail has to be able to get a lot more food. One with a scraggly looking tail is not faring as well nutritionally. And that’s why, the theory goes, peahens (aka, the female of the species) find the tail so sexy. this male is really good at feeding himself and staying healthy. She thinks, if I breed with him, there’s a good chance my offspring will be healthy and able to feed themselves too. Therefore, the tail is sexy because it’s a drag on the bird. It’s inefficiency is what makes it such a great indicator of success. And it shows off values that are important to the survival needs of peacocks.
Humans don’t have much in the way of plumage, but we do have really big brains compared to other animals. And big brains are very important to us as a species. So somebody who is creative not only has a really big brain, but they have excess to waste on poetry and music or other creative output. Somebody who can tell a good story is thus not only smart enough to survive, but they’ve got brains to spare. I’m not explaining this as well as Nettle did, and, indeed, it’s a little slippery and weird, inherently. Animals find excess to be sexy, specifically excess that’s tied to some essential part of their species. So for humans, this is thinking power. It’s important to remember that this is statistical. You might find your pulse increase for accountants (yes, I know, it’s a stereotype – Charles Ives invented the actuary table), but statistically, creative output is one of the things that people consider when looking for a mate.
I say “people.” Nettle says “women.” Going back to peacocks – they don’t mate for life. A male can go after as many peahens as will have him. His investment in the next generation is very small, so he doesn’t have to be picky. People, though, invest quite a bit more in the next generation. Most people in the world practice monogamy. (Even in societies that allow polygamy, most people in it have only one mate.) I read several years ago a theory that early humans tended to mate for about two years if they didn’t have a kid. after that, they tend to move on. this was valuable behavior as they seemed to be infertile with each other. If they had a kid, they would tend to stay together until the kid was 7 years old. At that point, a kid doesn’t require as many resources. Giving birth is a much higher investment on the part of a woman than men’s part in conception, but 7 years of monogamy means that they’re both very strongly invested in the child. So the mother invests more resources, but not that much more.
Think of that movie March of the Penguins. the males and females look pretty much alike. The males didn’t have any special plumage. But both parents had a nearly equal part in taking care of the kid. Both of them had to be extremely strong to reproduce and both of them had to be completely dedicated to their one offspring. A female could only lay one egg and a male could only keep one egg warm. therefore, their contribution was more or less equal. So when they were searching for mates, they’re both looking for somebody strong and healthy. Any plumage that the males developed would be equally important on the females. they both need to be able to march out, find food, march back, feed the kid, etc.
But, alas, Nettle is trapped in the male plumage theory. As dubious proof of the essenitaly male nature of creativity, he has a graph of gallery shows for male and female painters in the first half of the 20th century. I wish this was a joke, but it’s actually in the book and he appears to be serious about it. He does acknowledge the role of sexism, but brushes it aside. However, he would have been hard pressed to find a graph more influenced by sexism. For an example, Frieda Kahlo, who was awesome and had an incredible amount of output, didn’t get a solo show until near the end of her life. She was an international celebrity before anybody even thought to give her a solo show. Her work now is considered iconic and is extremely popular, but the sale price of her painting is still much lower than other male artists with less fame and popular appeal, and she’s on display in fewer museums than one would expect. She is not at all an isolated case, but rather just one of the most blatant. If Nettle had looked up a graph for white vs African American shows, he would have found similar data. Having established creativity as a human universal, it would be stupid and incorrect to argue racial difference based on such a graph. But here he does it with sex differences.
Ok, fine, there are sex differences in other species and there are some sex differences in humans too. But humans have nearly equal fertility investments in child rearing, so sex differences should be much less. Furthermore, peahens don’t have fancy tails. If it were the case that creativity was an essentially male persuit, there would be no genetic advantage in giving women the dangerous personality types associated with creativity. They would get none of the reward and bear none of the burden. Indeed, since personality types and creativity are so closely associated, the rate of male vs female insanity should indicate the rate of creative potential. And it’s very near the same. (Women are more likely than men to have a polar disorder.)
Quick, name a female sex symbol! Madonna! What does she do? She sings! How many female sex symbols are creative? Singers, dancers, actors! It should be completely obvious that male heterosexuals are as captivated by creative talent as straight women. (And queer folks having kids value this also.) Only blinding levels of sexism could obscure this.
I’m really tired of folks trying to say that composing is inherently, biologically male. The arts are human. Any attempt to assign them to gender is misguided and silly – or it would be silly if it weren’t so dangerous. And the lengths that women go to in order to create, fighting systems specifically put in place to keep them out, should emphasize the universality of creativity. Given the obstacles preventing women from getting gallery shows in the first half of the 20th century, the fact that there are any at all seems to imply a possibility that women have more creative capacity than men. I don’t think this is the case. I think the higher rate of depression in women is environmental, caused by things like barriers to creative recognition. I think the struggles past women have gone through to get their work out in the world is testament to the human spirit.
So, all in all, Nettle makes a pretty good argument, despite being a sexist ass who needs to revise some of the last chapters. He also gives advice to folks to try to stay sane. A personality type at risk to insanity can be helpful, but actual insanity is not. People who tend to succeed are organized and hard working (alas for me). Hard work is a greater part of creative success than other factors. So don’t feel bad about your mental illness. Work hard, get help if and when you need it. Poets are sexy.

Horrifying Moments


One of the most horrifying moments in film is the crucifix scene in The Exorcist. That scene stands out of one of extreme drama, and, indeed, horror. I’m talking about it non-specifically because I haven’t actually seen the movie. But I want to, because it’s reputed to be an excellent film and a classic in it’s genre. And there’s a famous scene involving a crucifix which invokes horror in the audience.

The reason that I bring this up is because I fell victim to knee jerking even as I tried to resist it. Horrifying is not the same as horrible. Saying that Beethoven’s 9th is a horrifying depiction of violence does not mean that it’s horrible. Nor does it mean that the horror lies in people’s enjoyment of the piece. Instead it means that McCleary would like to put an additional genre description on the 9th. In addition to it’s musical form and it’s time period, she would like to add the label “horror.” A label worn by excellent works in other genres.
This sort of generic description is not often applied to musical works and so McCleary is often misconstrued. Including by me. Which is why I should not blog about books that I haven’t actually read.

But what about porn?

(Musicology is so much more exciting than one might think!)
The director of The Exorcist created a film about demonic possession. However, I wouldn’t say that he was advocating for the same or trying to encourage it in any way. I’m guessing most Beethoven scholars would assert that Beethoven wasn’t advocating for rape. However, pron occupies a somewhat different realm in society. For starters, unlike demons, we all agree that it exists. Secondly, unlike rape, it’s legal.
So I think most of my questions from my previous post still stand: Does a pron sample carry the male gaze with it (“the male audition”)? Does intent matter? Does usage matter? What are the implications of whether or not they matter? Does the amount to which they matter vary over time?

Questions in Feminist Musicology

Instrumental Music

To call Susan McClary‘s book Feminine Endings “controversial,” is an understatement. It inspires not just controversy, but also outrage. One guy I knew said of it and her, “she should stop writing.”

Those of you who are not in the music world may be unfamiliar with this book. What it could it say that would cause folks to want to mute the author? “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the [Beethoven’s] Ninth [Symphony] is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” (found here) (Let’s leave aside that this sentence doesn’t actually appear in the book, she did write it and the book has a rephrased version of the same sentiment.) Note that she is speaking metaphorically about the piece of music, not literally about Beethoven. She speaks of his creation, not of he, himself. Still, that’s provocative as hell. Is there anything to it?
I kind of like the 9th and the drama of it, so rather than knee jerking about how I don’t consume that kind of pron, I want to instead address the idea underlying this oft quoted sentence: Are ideas of sexuality and violence expressed through instrumental music? One place to search for the answer to this query is to look at how instrumental music is paired with words and actions in cultural product that seeks to express those same ideas. That is, does Hollywood assign certain sexualities or actions to certain musical idioms? If, for example, woodwinds and especially saxophones were often used as musical cues attached to the sexual other, such that they came to stand as a character note, that would suggest that instrumental music could carry those sort of cues. And indeed, the saxophone’s association with jazz and thus black people (an alien other) lead it to be associated with other alien others like queers (as Norman Mailer wrote, “the white negro”) and fallen women. It is the case that certain instruments and tonalities tend to have cultural baggage rooted in their history. A sax playing a ‘blue’ note invokes all the baggage of jazz music. A drum and bugle corps playing in major invokes the baggage of military pride. Indeed, it would be more surprising if these associations did not exist as it would mean that people had no connection to their cultural history.
Lest anyone argue that the newness of ‘talkies’ means that poor Beethoven was writing before associations came to be attached to musical cues, I have two answers to that. 1. The term “feminine ending” is an archaic musical term, referring to cadential weakness. (wikipedia) This shows that ideas of assigning sexuality to musical structures pre-date hollywood. And 2. She’s using present tense not past tense. “The point of recapitualtion” means not the intention, but the moment: the place where the theme returns and is restated. She asserts that it “is one of the most horrifying moments in music” now. I have to disagree, purely on aesthetic grounds. However, she’s talking about what it means to a listener now, not what it meant to the composer or people in his time period.

Tape Music

I meant to just have an intro paragraph on McClary, but I got carried away, as one so often does. (I have to confess that I haven’t actually finished reading the book. I can’t even swear that I finished the first chapter, but I can’t say for certain as it’s in California and I am not.) Anyway, my point of bringing it up was to make the assertion that if the use of certain instrumental sounds can reference particular ideas, this must also be the case for musique concrete. That is, if a certain schmaltzy sax line implies a sexual encounter, a musician playing a sample of a moan from a porn movie must also have certain baggage. It unarguably conveys sexuality. To say otherwise would be silly. And with it, I think, it brings all the baggage associated with pron.
The first piece that I know of which uses the sounds of a woman experiencing orgasm is Tiger Balm by Annea Lockwood. This piece is feminist in intent. And the sample reflects that. It sounds like a home recording and while the fact of it’s inclusion is a bit shocking, the sonic effect does not carry the titilation that one would expect. I communicated as much to Lockwood over email, after she sent me the record (I met her by volunteering for the Other Minds festival, but that’s a longer story). Her reply acknowledged this.
Since then, I’ve heard orgasm samples used in (at least) three pieces by two male composers. Both used what sounded like recordings of commercial pornography. The first one was by Jascha Narveson, who was a colleague at Wesleyan. He played it in class and I remember it using mostly porn-y sounds. I was dismayed, but then he explained that the piece was feminist in intent. The other two pieces were both by Alvin Curran. One he performed this last spring at the Royal Conservatory. He has a large keyboard loaded up with samples and he improvises playing them, building up dense and often unexpected textures. The first inclusion of the woman moaning was a surprising juxtaposition and a funny moment, but when it returned, the humor was lessened until it was gone. The other piece was on a podcast which I just listened to and which inspired this post. It sounded like he was using the sample sample in the same keyboard. I suspect that it’s a sound that he uses often, as are, probably, all the sounds in his keyboard. Therefore, it’s affect cannot be merely novelty or it wouldn’t bear repeating in multiple pieces and would instead wear thin as a joke that gets old.
So does a pron sample carry the male gaze with it? The production values and sound quality are as instantly recognizable as pictures of Barbie-smooth skin and shaved pubic hair. Can one speak of a male audition to compliment his gaze? And does intent matter?
If intent does matter, then McCleary seems to have slandered Beethoven. (*) I can imagine that his primary conscious desire was to create a compelling piece of music. Certainly, he had unconscious goals, firmly tied to his time and place. But even then, when women’s roles in public life were less than they are now, rape was still far out of bounds. (I presume. Scholars are free to correct me.) If intent doesn’t matter, then Narveson’s piece would be perpetuating our hypothetical male audition. Or does it matter how the music is used? I recall that the music was composed for a feminist benefit of some kind. Does the importance of intent change over time? Beethoven’s intent doesn’t matter because he’s long dead and we’re modern listeners, so therefore, over time, the importance of the intent and original use of Narveson’s piece will gradually fade and it will slowly fall into the male audition. If the intent and usage is a deciding factor in how one regards a piece, do the program notes then become an integral part of the composition? What you hear is always colored by what you know (or think you know), so, to avoid the male audition, would it be necessary to insist that everyone acquaint themselves with the program notes?
How much importance to composers should this be anyway? There is (or was) a group in the San Francisco area called the Porn Orchestra. They played live music to accompany muted porn films. Sometimes with the fast forward button firmly pressed. Amusing, certainly. When I first learned of them, it was via the internet and their information spoke of the “universal” experience of hitting the mute button while viewing porn, because the sound so often sucked. I polled my female friends and almost none had participated in this “universal” experience. So it’s universal for who? (We all know the answer to this question.)
So what about using pron samples? I hope for discussion in the comments, as I don’t have answers to these questions.


Something just occurred to me. There will be a followup post shortly.

Edit 2

Ok, I knee jerked a bit. Sorry. followup is here

It’s alllllliiiiive!!!!!!

Caravia asks, rhetorically, I hope, “Is feminism dead?” There’s nothing as fun as answering a rhetorical questions, so therefore, my answer is “if it was, you wouldn’t be asking that question.”

She goes on to point out that the key players in the Iraq war boondoggle have been almost all men. That’s true, but I would caution against the drawing of certain conclusions based on that. Lest anyone think that women are automatically better, more peaceful leaders, may I draw your attention to Marget Thatcher. I think it’s an error to assert the automatic superiority of women in any matter. Women suck just as much as men. We already have equality in stupidity.
The reason fewer women were in war planning has to do with the spectacular level of sexism in the US. However, it may also be the case that the war itself is a result of the same sexism. The US seems to be going through a certain crisis of masculinity. There’s a desire afoot to assert a masculine presence. Columnists fret about a metaphorical castration of the armed services. Voter’s positive evaluations of Bush before his re-election also seem to be mostly based on the perception of him as the more manly candidate. Therefore, I would say that the lack of women in high levels of the Pentagon did not cause this disastrous foreign adventure, but instead, is also an effect of the same social forces that caused the war. What better way to assert a hyper-masculine presence than kicking some ass.
Note that the war was marketed as “ass kicking.” Toby Kieth sang, in the widely played song Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, “An’ you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / ‘Cos we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Of course, it was not Iraq that “messed with” the United States, it was Al Quaeda, but an extensive misinformation campaign caused the majority of Americans to believe that Iraq was at fault. Kieth sang, “A mighty sucker-punch came flying in from somewhere in the back.” obviously alluding to the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. A sucker-punch is an unexpected hit: a tap on the shoulder from behind followed by a fist to the face. He felt this was a damage to the dignity of the US, singing metaphorically about a “big black eye,” which is used, typically, not to just refer to an physical injury, but also a humiliation. In the barroom brawl in which he imagines foreign policy occurring, the US’ masculinity has been compromised.
Alas, the “boot in ass” did not go as well as some might have hoped. Osama bin Laden was at large. There was no catharsis in extending the suffering of Afghanis and the already-destroyed infrastructure in Afghanistan. By contrast, there were plenty of things to blow up in Iraq.
The recipient of a sucker punch must retaliate to the punch or risk being labeled a “pussy.” “Pussy,” of course, is a crude word for a vagina as well as a descriptor for an insufficiently masculine man. The symbolism of the toppelling towers was not lost on the American subconscious. We were castrated, a hole left where once a tower stood.
The presence of more women in the Pentagon, then, wouldn’t mean the women there would be any smarter or less loyal Bushie than their male colleagues, but it would imply that the crisis of masculinity was lessened or passed, thus causing a decrease in sexism and an increase in female participation.
Caravia goes on to note:

The idea with . . . peace movements driven by women is to raise awarness about the consequences of the war, the millions of civilian casualties. Not only the killed, but . . . the raped women, carrying the children of their rapists, the people killed in genocides around the world.

Her implication is, then, that male-driven peace movements focus on something other than civilian casualties. Perhaps they focus more on the (not inconsiderable) harm suffered by American soldiers? This is an interesting assertion and one that bears further analysis. It’s certainly the case that woman are more able to have an immediate empathy with foreign victims of rape. American women are taught rape fear from an early age. Outside areas at night, mall parking garages, even the homes of friends are all fraught with danger. This ever-present rape awareness creates a connection between American women activists and their sisters in war zones. (I can’t speak for European women’s experiences.)
Others seem to have a harder time empathizing with women. In his song, Keith clearly imagines his metaphorical protagonist as male. What happens when somebody “sucker punches” a woman? Firstly, I doubt many would refer to it as a sucker-punch, but rather as an assault. And the response to an assault isn’t to get into a brawl, but rather a more legalistic approach of calling the police, pressing charges, etc: a due process where, ideally, everyone involved is treated fairly and justly. This kind of response is one that might not work as well in a song (“Whip out my cell, before you can run / dial the operator at 9-1-1. / The police will come and put you in jail. / It takes 72 hours to set bail”), but is one that doesn’t harm innocent bystanders or set off a larger, regional bar-brawl.
That Keith and others couldn’t imagine themselves as acting as anything other than a humiliated man may stem from a horror at their tower being replaced by a hole but more likely shows that the crisis of masculinity was already present, probably brought about by other social factors, probably including economic insecurity. This shows that a thriving feminist movement could result in peace and also that it’s tied to other struggles, like class inequality and the healthcare crisis.

Feminism and FLOSS


Let’s start this with some definitions. (No, this isn’t about feminism and gum disease (although that might also be interesting).) FLOSS stands for “Free (Libre) Open Source Software.” As they say, that’s “free” as in speech, not “free” as in beer. FLOSS refers to software projects in which participation is more open. Users can get copies of the source code (this is the stuff that programmers make. you can change it and thus change the program) and do whatever they like with it, as long as what they distribute is also FLOSS. This is what we mean by “free.”
However, to be clear, the distribution model of FLOSS means it is often also available without monetary exchange. Users can go to a website and get tons of cool software for their computer, including an operating system. You can get computer hardware and never pay for any of the programs on it and do this without piracy or stealing. And if you have technical skills and really like a piece of software, you can even add features to it. Or, you can ask for the feature and somebody might even listen to you and do it.

Every piece of software has a certain community aspect. The users are a group of people who care about the software. Thus, all software has some community. But proprietary software owned by big companies can afford to ignore this community or even work against them. Many of the mis-features in the new version of windows were added at the bequest of media companies and are contrary to the needs and desires of the user community. This dynamic is less present in FLOSS software because the user community has direct access to the very essence of the software. If something unpopular gets stuck in, they can take it back out. Thus FLOSS software is inherently democratic, existing squarely within the free marketplace of ideas. The users own the software.
Therefore FLOSS empowers the user. This dynamic tends to have implications in the social dynamic among users. Many FLOSS programs have online resources to help users and the community will often offer help and support to each other. For example a FLOSS thing I use has an IRC group (a chat room). Many users log in and keep it open in the background. If they have a problem, they can ask about it. If they notice somebody else is having a problem that they can solve, they might jump in and help.
Many of the implications and goals of FLOSS have an obvious commonality with feminist goals. In a more concise summary, my internet friend Paula (aka Bastubis) wrote:

I think FLOSS offers better possibilities [than proprietary software] for feminist use because:

  • it’s community owned
  • mutual and self-help model
  • collaborative
  • empowers the user

Women Developers

Despite all the commonality between FLOSS and feminism, it’s still the case that only around 1.5% of FLOSS developers are women. Therefore, we can conclude that while FLOSS has a commonality with feminism, it is not, in and of itself, inherently feminist or women’s participation would be higher.
Ironically, some of the very openness of FLOSS may be part of the issue. All groups have hierarchies and power imbalances. In some groups, hierarchies are formalized and in others they are not. Informal groupings are fine for consciousness raising or within groups of friends, but they can become problematic in groups that are taking more direct action. For example, let’s say a CR group decides to act on a specific issue. One person might have an idea for a protest, but, since this is a new direction for the group, before presenting it to the group as a whole, she runs it by a few friends within the group who offer suggestions. Over time, in-groups and out-groups develop, where a core group of friends discusses things before brining it to the group as a whole. This dynamic can quickly become toxic and it’s why direct action groups often have specific handbooks for how to organize themselves. You cannot try to right a power imbalance unless you first recognize that it exists.
Ironically, sometimes even more oppressive hierarchy can be better for reaching feminist goals. About 20% of corporate developers are women. Corporations invest energy in trying to recruit women and trying to avoid the appearance of sexism (to some extent). This is not because corporations are good, far from it, but because we have been able to use the legal system to force them to be less discriminatory. However, turning the legal system on FLOSS is probably not the best solution to the lack-of-diversity problem, alas.
So, given all of this, what causes women’s non-participation in FLOSS? Well, most FLOSS stuff occurs on the internet. I remember the good old days of “nobody knows if you’re a dog on the internet” and how the invisibility of identity would lead to a truly colorblind, genderblind utopia. There’s multiple problems with this ideal, which can explain where it went wrong. First of all, access issues meant that the majority of (english-speaking) people on the internet were white men. This lead users to assume that anybody they were talking to was a white men. Secondly, anoninimity causes people to act like assholes. A few assholes could spew racist, sexist, classist garbage until populations that were sensitive to this would leave. The answer to this is not to do it in reverse because it’s a terrible model of how to behave and because it just won’t work. White guys are priviliged and this makes them less vulnerable to this kind of attack. So they’re in a position where they can exert this power and have no negative consequences for it. Probably, these are people who don’t feel terribly empowered in their daily lives. In the offline world, most gay bashers are teen boys who are alarmed about their own sexuality.
Informal hierarchies on online forums, coupled with conditions created by institutionalized oppression, therefore can create an environment which is explicitly hostile to women (and other minority groups). Because everyone is equally empowered, nobody is empowered to stop harassers, trolls, and vocal bigots. Indeed, a completely open forum is a situation where a troll (or a spammer) can destroy a community, by creating so much garbage that any meaningful communication is effectively drowned out. The way to solve this problem is to create a more formalized hierarchy, where certain users are granted the power to ban certain users or remove certain posts. These super-empowered users are called moderators. They keep spammers and trolls at bay. There are more refined models of moderation, such as rotating moderatorship or systems where comments are voted on and given certain scores (so users can elect to see only high-scoring comments).
However, moderation is only as good as the moderator(s). If the moderators don’t care about sexism, an informal hierarchy based on sex can still exist. These partially unmoderated portions of the internet are often explicitly hostile to women. The moderated sections are less hostile, but there’s still the nobody-knows-if-you’re-a-dog invisibility. Everyone around you is (apparently) a white man. This does not create a welcoming environment.
So what to do about women in FLOSS? As the hierarchies are most often informal, a legal remedy is probably not the answer. Therefore, I think there are two approaches we should explore. One is to work with prominent FLOSS organizations, like GNU, to put women in high profile positions. I think the Ubuntu group is probably receptive to this. This would create a situation where women FLOSS contributors are more visible.
The other approach is affinity groups. Having groups of women working together on FLOSS creates visibility and an a community which is specifically welcoming to them, potentially attracting more women to become active in FLOSS.
I think there’s also a financial issue Do FLOSS developers get paid for their work? (Frankly, I don’t want to add to the amount of unpaid labor already extracted from women.) Programmers in open source may be living off of donations to their projects. They may be funded by corporations and foundations. Some just do it in their free time. The grass-roots kind of FLOSS that we’re talking about is more in the free-time category of development. I’m guessing that the men who do free time development have some sort of infrastructure to support them. They’re students. Or they’re married and have a woman picking up after them or they have a maid (a woman picking up after them). By contrast, women who are not students usually have to pick up after themselves.


The ideals of FLOSS have a great synchronicity with non-profit enterprises, but if we want women who are in non-profits, and thus already getting low pay, to take up FLOSS development, it needs to be part of their job, not something for their free time. The good news about this is that there is funding out there.
If we want women who are in non-profits to take up FLOSS tools, we need to give them training and support, face to face, through affinity groups. The money they save on software licenses will make it worth their time. Also, we as developers need to make sure that the tools we give them are self-explanatory. If they want to get a volunteer to come in for an afternoon and do something, they want hir to just be able to sit down and do it, without having to spend too much time learning the system.


FLOSS and feminism could and should work together. To ensure that this happens on the development side, we need to push for both visibility and anti-sexist moderation policies. We can create visibility by getting women into visible formally hierarchical organizations that already exist and by creating our own such organizations. On the user side, we should specifically offer support through affinity groups, so that women have an explicitly welcoming environment where they can learn about FLOSS tools. Furthermore, we should specifically reach out to feminist non-profits as a means to help them become more effective and thus advance the cause of feminism in the brick and mortar world, as well as online.

offline blogging: austria

I am in Vienna. I met many Wieners when I was in Linz and am staying with a woman I met named Marty. Many people who went to the conference in Linz flew in through Vienna, so last night, we had a small party. Several members of the vegetable orchestra were present. This legendary group’s shows include making instruments out of vegetables and then playing them. One of the folks last night apparently has a technique where she can get a zucchini to sound exactly like a tuba. They used to follow up the performances with stew made from the instruments, but this was time consuming and also kind of gross, so now they pre-cook their stew with other vegetables.
Last night was some of the most fun that I’ve ever had. We were artists and geeks and sex workers and Europeans and Americans and all feminist / progressive. Austria has its political problems, certainly, but the indie scene is great. We were hanging out at the queer center. There was spray paint on the outside wall that said "gender queer." It made me feel very happy. I really like that term.
The last day that the con was going in Linz was unbearably hot. There were my last minute workshops. A quick intro to svn, how to podcast, etc, but it was all so hot, the entire building emptied out and migrated to the bank of the Danube. I was not the only one who went skinny dipping in the (brown) Danube. After painting myself in thick coat of spf 50 sunblock. The current was swift. The water was freezing! So much fun.
Alas, my whole experience made me feel pangs for my youth. Ah, to be in a place where women work together and trans-masculinity is validated, and where my body is not a cultural artifact, but just the space that I inhabit, without expectations written across the shape of my chest.
Linz was home to some important historical figures. Bruckner used to play the organ in the town’s cathedral. Some of you will recall that Bruckner wrote for the wagner tuba and thus is important in its history. Also from linz was Adolph Hitler. He went to a real schule near the haupt schule where we slept. One of the people in my room attempted to determine whether he attended the school that we slept at. Since he was an art student and this was the arts magnet, it was a possibility. Anyway, she failed to find out. Maybe i slept in hitler’s homeroom?
I think that I am now involved in the european feminist forum. We are going to set up a wiki (or drupal) which has a bunch of howtos for activists and non-profits. Leftists simply should not be giving their institutional funds to microsoft. If they’re in to people power, they should use free software. Also many outside the first world don’t have the luxury to buy buggy bloatware because it costs too much. Our documents will hopefully be useful to folks worldwide. What do orgs use computers for? Their website, email, spreadsheets, documents, making posters and officy stuff like that. These kinds of applicstions work very well under ubuntu and don’t require much computer power. Old computers can be turned into powerful tools for activists.
We need a parallel structure. Anti-capitalists cannot depend on for-profit enterprise to solve their problems. This is a clear use for self-help and anarchism! Amyway, I’ll set something up when i get home and then make an announcement and then go away again. The intended audience is computer novice activists, so part of the issue is trust. It’s ok to link to other howtos, but its essential to gain their trust. They’re often suspicious of new technology and wary of geeks, so even if this project is redundant, the feminist perspective will help.

Are You a feminist? Why or why not?

Video from the 4th of July shot with my camera. The audio from this will shortly be munched into a piece of music. You too can participate. Make your voice heard! I am not looking for any particular answer. However, I am looking for language diversity. So send me your answer in your favorite language: English, Esperanto, Spanish, Japanese, Klingon, etc. I’m especially looking for German, since the piece is going to premier in Austria.
Email me your answer in audio or video (with sound). Any format is ok. I will thank you in the program notes and give you a copy of the piece. Cell phone movies/recordings are ok, the internal mic on your computer, whatever. Send files to celesteh AT gmail DOT com.
This movie little clip is under a Creative Commons Attribution-only Liscence, btw. Video wants to be free.