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Death and the Maiden

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Freud’s theory of the death drive also gives us a way to think about gender.

Walter Benjamin remarked of the people who experienced the First World War:

A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and at its center, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, a tiny fragile human body.

What this body could mean was newly in question. Benjamin discusses economic depression, technological innovation, moral uncertainty, and violence, but the First World War also provoked a crisis of masculinity. Men died, were wounded, and later found themselves unemployed in unprecedented numbers. Meanwhile women, as Sarah M Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue in No Man’s Land, “seemed to become, as if by some uncanny swing of history’s pendulum, even more powerful.” Tiny fragile human bodies threatened to detach themselves from their traditionally assigned gender roles. At this historical moment, death collided with gender.
Confronted with a profusion of patients shaken by traumatic dreams in the wake of World War I, Sigmund Freud had a theoretical as well as therapeutic problem. He had previously asserted that every dream is the fulfillment of a wish, but the repetition he encountered in traumatic dreams contradicted this claim. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he asked, Why repeat something unpleasurable? Why return to the site of trauma?

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Made for China

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As US audiences tire of big budget spectacle, Hollywood designs its blockbuster product for the ever-expanding Chinese market

It matters that Superman is a white man, even though he’s not human but an alien from the planet Krypton. It matters that Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Wolverine, Thor, and Captain America are all white men—even though most of them are only kind of human. It matters that when we sit silently in a movie theater, reverently observing the glowing screen with our thirteen dollar tickets and buckets of popcorn in hand, we watch white men saving the world again and again.

It matters too, then, that quietly, without fanfare, the race of one of the mutants in X-Men: Days of Future Past was changed. Blink is white in the original comic books. In the movie, she’s Asian, played by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

Twentieth Century Fox made a calculated decision when they cast Fan. Although unknown to Western audiences, Fan is the most famous working actress in China. She has topped the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list for the past two years. Her movies have broken China’s domestic box office records and she serves as the face of L’Oreal and Louis Vuitton in China.

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Poems From Guantanamo

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A new book of poems about Guantanamo Bay detainees raises the prison’s specter of placelessness 

There are few more painful ways to get inside Guantanamo than reading through the mental deterioration and suicide of Adnan Latif, a Yemeni man who—at around 25 years old—was among the first prisoners brought to Guantanamo from Afghanistan in 2002. Latif maintained he had gone to Afghanistan for treatment for a head injury; the government insisted he had gone to train with Al Qaeda. A federal judge ordered him released in 2010, but another court vacated the decision, saying the government record implicating him must be given “a presumption of regularity.” By 2010, Latif’s lawyers were making the case that the government was holding a sick man. Latif sometimes wore a sheet as a cape and did backflips on his cell wall, ate shards of glass, and threw feces and blood at his lawyer and guards. He committed suicide in the fall of 2012 with an overdose of pills he had somehow managed to hoard. After his death, Latif’s body was held in limbo in Germany for months, before finally being returned to his family in Yemen.

I reported on Latif’s death and the circumstances around it, reading all the available documents and speaking to his lawyer. His story affected me as much any tragedy: his suffering was painfully incidental to the Obama administration’s political maneuverings regarding the future of the prison.

770 men have been in Guantanamo since the prison was opened; today there remain 149, some of whose stories are as pathetic as Latif’s, some of whose are more incriminating. Their details – well, some of them – are laid bare in transcripts of the initial “combatant status review tribunals” that the U.S. government granted Guantanamo detainees when the Supreme Court determined, in 2004, that they must have some chance to challenge their detention. And these transcripts have also become fodder for the French poet Frank Smith’s 2010 book Guantanamo, released in July by Les Figues Press in a terse and effective translation by the poet and conceptual artist Vanessa Place.

Smith presents six of these Guantanamo stories, mangling them through a process of repeated questioning. The men are not named in Guantanamo, and the poet does not follow them to their end, as one can with Latif. Instead, Smith works exclusively with the tribunal material (obtained first by the The Associated Press). He arrests the narrative at a moment of judgment, with the detainees responding to their imprisonment in a pseudo-judicial setting for the first time. They are asked to verify or clarify previous statements to explain what brought them to Guantanamo, as though it had been their decision. In response, the prisoners tell the stories of lives spent “wandering from one land to another,/and from the other to a third one again.”

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Smith’s mesmerizing book entangles the reader in the unknown men’s fates, and forces us to confront the perverse logic of the prison by enacting it, which makes book as affecting as a read through the raw documents in a case like Latif’s. One poem begins with a detainee saying, “What is this, to witness?” He is asking a technical question of the tribunal, but it strikes out at the reader (rhyming in French — Qu’est-ce que c’est, témoigner? – and alliterative in English), who is witnessing at such a distance.

Smith’s book also immerses you in the impersonal rationale that condemned men like Latif in general  in the lethal morass of the terms of our engagement with terrorism, contested terms like “associated,” “ties,” “combatant,” even “battlefield.” As Smith gradually, literally, breaks down these official texts with maddening repetition and distortion, he reveals the linguistic muddle, the mutual incomprehension, and the actual mystery around these men about whom we, in some way, ought to know everything.

Smith makes stubborn use of the French pronoun on, which Place variously translates as “we,” “they,” “it is said,” and with a third person singular verb, leaving out the speaker entirely: “Asks if went from Kazakhstan to Kabul, Afghanistan, in September, 2000. Answers that’s it, that’s right.” Elsewhere, the back-and-forth is punctuated with question-and-answer headings, or simple conversational dashes. It’s effectively disorienting, achieving none of the impersonal clarity toward which such a system strives. What Place loses without the concise ambiguity of on is closer to the bureaucratic thicket through which the government and these men assert their versions of the story. It also fits the inversion of interrogation on display. We all know about the torture that marked some prisoners’ early days at Guantanamo, which officials said was necessary to extract information. Now, the interrogator asks perversely, “are there other facts that would help us understand why you are held here?”

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The pronoun confusion is brutally broken when the characters speak in long plaintive or ranting first person narratives. Sometimes, Smith intercedes, breaking into more traditional poetic diction:

Then, by boat,

when it stopped working, by helicopter,

they crossed the Amu River

the two hundred Uzbek families,

as well as the man, his wife, and his mother.

and

 The man has no business here.

I have no business here,

he says.

Smith exploits trivial pieces of evidence and cultural ignorance in the questioning.  A vegetable garden. A Casio watch. Much discussion of passports. Why would someone go to Afghanistan of their own accord? “Question: You talked about the call of Allah, what is this?” “But we don’t know the months in Arabic.”

Despite the exhaustive documentation of their cases, the men’s stories are unbelievably alien. Even for a sympathetic ear, their lives warrant a novel’s worth of explication. Instead, fragments of their lives are served up conflated and piecemeal: the everyman of Guantanamo, the ontological state of confusion embodied by the place.

***

Guantanamo – the prison and the place – is only rarely mentioned in the detainee accounts. When it is spoken of, it is usually referred to as “Cuba,” so the titling of the book Guantanamo is almost incidental.

Yet the book depends on the signal force of that name and the specter of placelessness it signifies. The U.S. seized control of the Bay during the Spanish-American war, and has leased the land from Cuba since 1903 (though Fidel Castro won’t cash our rent checks.)  For the purposes of the war on terror, the government tried to designate Guantanamo extraterritorial, out of reach of the U.S. legal system. The Supreme Court disagreed, in 2008. It is foreign, the Court ruled, but it’s under complete American control.

I went to the military base in 2013 to cover hearings in a military commission trial. I had applied for a spot, signed a Memorandum of Understanding giving public affairs escorts control over much of my activity, and shown up at dawn at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland to board a plane chartered by the military along with a handful of other reporters, lawyers, and commission staff. We flew in over fences demarcating Cuba. Just off the tarmac, our names were checked against a manifest. But on the way back, the stewardess distributed customs and immigration arrival cards for us to fill out. I stared at the blank on the form asking me what countries I had visited. I asked the woman next to me, who worked for the Navy, what we were supposed to write. She shrugged and printed “GTMO”. I followed suit.

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I stayed in Camp Justice, the rows of Quonset-hut-style tents where reporters are stashed. It’s next to the Expeditionary Legal Complex, which houses the military commissions. The court and the prison camp are the domain of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, and kept at a distance from the sleepier Naval base. Most of the service workers on island are not American; in the Subway, in trucks emblazoned with contractors’ logos, we see workers from the Philippines. Jamaicans serve up barbeque from a roadside shack.  On the way to Camp Justice there’s a shrine to the Our Lady of Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, and then a little monument with a woman painted all the same brown as her army uniform with garish red lips and cheeks and she’s unfurling an American flag and an eagle is alighting on it. The vegetation is scraggly and brown, dotted with drab buildings and mysterious rusting equipment and bunkers. Military bases often seem provisional, but this occupation, despite being 100 years old, feels particularly impermanent.

Smith is attuned to that geographic ambiguity in the detainees’ predicament. Many of them were stateless by circumstance even before by the Americans made them so, and now they are citizens of this no-place. Near the end of the book, a detainee asks to go to the United States. “This is what I wish for most in the world,” he tells his American captors.

If Smith plays up the ironies of the men’s detention, the Bay echoes that duplicitous language in spades. It’s full of ironic factoids. “Prisoner” expresses the blunt truth of the men’s condition, but the government’s preferred term, detainee, is technically accurate. “Recidivism” is hard to measure when there’s the possibility that men did not return to terrorism but turned to it only after imprisonment. There’s a street named for José Martí, the hero of Cuba’s independence from Spain. The gift shop sells beach towels that say “It doesn’t GITMO better than this”; a pen-knife that says “proud American”; and Gitmo Christmas ornaments. The military says hunger strikers submit to being force-fed, and therefore, aren’t fasting. The government has argued that detainees own accounts of their torture and imprisonment by the CIA can be classified. There’s a red box spray-painted on the ground designating the corner where reporters can take pictures. There’s a sign saying “no photography,” which is great to photograph.

Reading Guantanamo, I think of our compete isolation from the men we were there to cover. In hours of dead time between hearings, we tried to sidestep the other journalists (a group of reporters with no subjects is a circular firing squad) as we quickly exhausted the stories of our kind public affairs escorts, who had to sit sober when they took us to dinner at the Irish pub O’Kelly’s.

The human rights observers bent our ears; the government prosecution gave us reasoned arguments in infuriatingly inhuman(e) language. We were not allowed to visit the prison – only Camp X-Ray, where arriving detainees were corralled in 2002, in open-air, chain-link enclosures watched by rickety wooden guard towers. We visited what our escorts said were interrogation rooms, in a row of plywood sheds with holes where air conditioners once sat.

A dead deer, a spiker with fuzzy horns, lay on the ground on the path in front of them. Some were bare except for animal droppings, while others had benches, wooden tables and stools of basic plywood. In the last room, a stack of twenty-odd cane chairs with cushions and curlicue backs. The rooms, like the cages, were overrun with vines and volunteer trees. Butterflies and lizards darted through them. They are being kept somewhat intact supposedly for future court evidence but most likely also because they serve as a visual separation from the new and humane Guantanamo the military would like to present.

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I filled those vacant hours by cataloguing details made weighty by what “Guantanamo” stands for, in the way Smith uses it as the perfect metonym for the persistent uncertainties of the war on terror. Fewer than two hundred men foiled President Obama’s ambition, but that was only ever to close Guantanamo the place, not necessarily the legal rationale beneath it.

It’s easy to end in irony. Few people can resist citing Kafka in describing Guantanamo, and the poet’s duty to obfuscate is almost too easy. Smith and Place have both emphasized the manipulation of found text as commentary on the instability of the originals: “unclassified verbal evidence” discussed with detainees through an interpreter. Smith translated the English documents to French, and Place put them back into English without consulting the originals. That text was only the beginning. The men in Guantanamo provided information to a shifting legal and political spectrum, to interrogators of different stripes and to military commissions, which were revamped, shut down, reopened. Initial convictions are now being invalidated. Trials are still mired in basic procedural questions. Many of the men cannot be tried, but the government maintains they cannot be safely released.

Smith uses the irony to tell the stories flat, and that is why these poems, though sincere, are not sentimental, nor do they read like an Amnesty International press release. In this framework, Smith and Place say, there’s no place for truth, and without it, no hope for justice. Twelve years on, though, we do have stories.

 

In Defense of Looting

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For most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting.

As protests in Ferguson continued unabated one week after the police killing of Michael Brown, Jr., zones of Twitter and the left media predominantly sympathetic to the protesters began angrily criticizing looters. Some claimed that white protesters were the ones doing all of the looting and property destruction, while others worried about the stereotypical and damaging media representation that would emerge. It also seems that there were as many protesters (if not more) in the streets of Ferguson working to prevent looting as there were people going about it. While I disagree with this tactic, I understand that they acted out of care for the struggle, and I want to honor all the brave and inspiring actions they’ve taken over the last weeks.

Some politicians on the ground in Ferguson, like alderman Antonio French and members of the New Black Panther Party, block looting specifically in order to maintain leadership for themselves and dampen resistance, but there are many more who do so out of a commitment to advancing the ethical and politically advantageous position. It is in solidarity with these latter protesters–along with those who loot–and against politicians and de-escalators everywhere that I offer this critique, as a way of invigorating discussion amongst those engaged in anti-oppression struggle, in Ferguson and anywhere else the police violently perpetuate white supremacy and settler colonialism. In other words, anywhere in America.

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The dominant media is itself a tool of white supremacy: it repeats what the police deliver nearly verbatim and uncritically, even when the police story changes upwards of nine times, as it has thus far in the Brown killing. The media use phrases like “officer-involved shooting” and will switch to passive voice when a black man is shot by a white vigilante or a police officer (“shots were fired”). Journalists claim that “you have to hear both sides” in order to privilege the obfuscating reports of the state over the clear voices and testimony of an entire community, members of which witnessed the police murder a teenager in cold blood. The media are more respectful to white serial killers and mass murderers than to unarmed black victims of murder.

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The Conservatism of Emoji

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Emoji offer you new possibilities for digital expression, but only if you’re speaking their language

If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
—Nat King Cole, “Smile”

The world will soon have its first emoji-only social network: Emoj.li. This news, announced in late June, was met with a combination of scorn and amusement from the tech press. It was seen as another entry in the gimmick-social-network category, to be filed alongside Yo. Yet emoji have a rich and complex history behind the campy shtick: From the rise of the smiley in the second half of the 20th century, emoji emerged out of corporate strategies, copyright claims, and standards disputes to become a ubiquitous digital shorthand. And in their own, highly compressed lexicon, emoji are trying to tell us something about the nature of feelings, of labor, and the new horizons of capitalism. They are the signs of our times.

Innocuous and omnipresent, emoji are the social lubricant smoothing the rough edges of our digital lives: They underscore tone, introduce humor, and give us a quick way to bring personality into otherwise monochrome spaces. All this computerized work is, according to Michael Hardt, one face of what he terms immaterial labor, or “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, knowledge, or communication.” “We increasingly think like computers,” he writes, but “the other face of immaterial labor is the affective labor of human conduct and interaction” — all those fast-food greetings, the casual banter with the Uber driver, the flight attendant’s smile, the nurse patting your arm as the needle goes in. Affective labor is another term for what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “emotional labor,” the commercialization of feelings that smooth our social interactions on a daily basis. What if we could integrate our understand of these two faces of immaterial labor through the image of yet another face?

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Emoji as Historical Artifacts

The smiley face is now so endemic to American culture that it’s easy to forget it is an invented artifact. The 1963 merger of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Mass., and Ohio’s Guarantee Mutual Company would be unremembered were it not for one thing: :), or something very much like it. An advertising man named Harvey Ball doodled a smiling yellow face at the behest of State Mutual’s management, who were in need of an internal PR campaign to improve morale after the turmoil and job losses prompted by the merger. The higher-ups loved it. “The power of a smile is unlimited,” proclaimed The Mutualite, the company’s internal magazine, “a smile is contagious…vital to business associations and to society.” Employees were encouraged to smile while talking to clients on the phone and filling out insurance forms. Ball was paid $240 for the campaign, including $45 for the rights to his smiley-face image.

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