This is pretty sci-fi, don't you think?
This is pretty sci-fi, don't you think?
From his Agenda on the White House website:
Our nation's creativity has filled the world's libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses, and marketplaces with works of genius. The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. As the author of two best-selling books — Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope — President Obama uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression.
That's it. That's the whole thing.
Pretty fuckin' weak, Barry. You're gonna have to do better if you want to get into FDR's ether. Three punk-ass sentences do not get those mural painted, those Okies photographed, and those plays staged, okay? It's time your smug ass recognized the giants whose shoulders DREAMS FROM MY FATHER stood on, and how fucking many of them worked for the WPA.
Time to cough up.
Nisi Shawl FILTER HOUSE
A book of short stories from a fabulous writer who is my friend so the no-review rule holds. Awrsome.
Ernest J. Eitel WHAT IS FENG SHUI?: THE CLASSIC NINETEETH-CENTURY INTERPRETATION
Just what the title says: an 1873 publication from an English-language press in Hong Kong. Eitel was a German Protestant missionary -- apparently with a gift for languages -- who spent his career in China and ended up becoming something of an expert in Feng Shui, Buddhism, and Cantonese, writing texts on the first two and a dictionary of the last. He has his own form of Romanization for Cantonese, apparently.
Anywho, the book is extremely valuable not just for helping me to cut through all the latter day, Westernized, interior decorating crap that fills most feng shui books I can find, but it also teaches 19th Century feng shui and conveys the attitude of an educated and enlightened Western man towards feng shui.
Eitel is alternately contemptuous of and fascinated by feng shui, condemning it as "rank superstition" at the same time that he claims it as legitimate Chinese natural science. He makes the point that I've had to make before, that although the art/science of feng shui is infused with hoo doo and superstition, and doesn't follow the strict rules of western empiricism, there has been a science to the manner of study of feng shui; there is a form of empiricism and experimentation involved -- only it isn't "pure."
Perfect research item for da nobble.
Stimulating and challenging discussion with Shailja yesterday over the course of a writing date. She expressed distrust towards the Sense of Hope TM that has risen around Obama's campaign and election (and now inauguration.) She's concerned that it's another mass-opiate.
I was thinking rather that it was a swing back to the other emotional extreme, after 8 years of the American public (and that is both right and left) being completely helpless to influence or affect the administration or national policy, and the concomitant despair that has been collecting over that. The despair, interestingly enough, although felt increasingly by the farther left all along, has only manifested in the mainstream in the last eighteen months or so -- not coincidentally, around the same time that long-ass campaign started. So I think the public can't maintain a sense of hope OR despair for very long: we avoid despair for as long as we can, and I think hope is fickle, if not fragile.
What I'm saying is that despair can't motivate us for long, and hope can't motivate -- or opiate -- us for long.
It also makes me think about the alchemy of the election. Our sense of despair arose right around the same time as our sense of hope. I think neither could manifest in the collective consciousness without the other. As a people, we staved off despair about Bush until two not merely viable, but transformational alternatives appeared. Then we all, as a mass, dropped any hope of Bush transforming his administration into something of any value and turned to Hillary and Obama.
And let's not gainsay Hillary's importance in this alchemical equation. The Hope TM came from a conjunction of symbolic sources (and when I say "first ____ candidate," I mean "first viable _____ candidate"):
If any of these elements had been missing, Obama might not have succeeded (it took a scary white women to frighten the decisive number of recalcitrant white males into supporting Obama.) More importantly, if any of these elements had been missing, our plate of hope would have been missing a major food group. Not a balanced meal. The Obama campaign made us feel completely healthy for the first time in 8 years of junk food. If a vegetable or a fruit had been missing, or protein, or whatever, it would not have been the whole hog: Hope.
So yes, it's definitely a monolithic Feeling TM that is easy to exploit commercially (although I think it's appropriate and salutary that Obama's first effect in office will be a minor boost to our economy through Obamabilia), but I'm not too worried about it opiating people indefinitely. Losing that Perfect Hope Storm TM will pique the public (I hope), and the first time Obama feels like compromising (or maybe the second or tenth) the More Than A Feeling TM will go away and people will sink back into Apathy As Usual or be moved to protest.
Obviously, I hope it's the latter, but I don't believe that people as a group entity can sustain political action -- or even political concern -- for very long. It's more important that we have an administration that is affected by the protest and action of the few, than that we mobilize everyone forever ... and to possibly little effect.
I really want to want to blog about Battlestar Galactica, but I just can't be bothered. I just don't care. Is that wrong?
Here's what's going on and why I'm doing this now.
First of all, I'm not gonna deal with global cultural appropriation, but rather focus on American appropriation of cultures brought into the US either by immigrants or by Americans who went abroad and brought stuff back. Okay, here's a brief and incomplete definition of "cultural appropriation" I wrote in this post a couple of years ago (you have to read the whole post to really get where I'm coming from.):
I think that's adequate as a basis, but I DO think I need to distinguish between two concepts so that people get it. The two concepts are:
More or less discrete cultures that come into contact with one another, either through geographical proximity, migration, conquest, trade and exploration, or in other ways, will start to syncretize aspects of each culture. This is inevitable, and neither undesirable nor preventable. Cultural items tend to get taken on in a new culture if they are useful, convenient, resolve a problem, or appeal to a value that already exists in the host culture. Examples of this would be:
And of course, small things like words and whole slang idioms, small gestures or sets of gestures, rituals and ceremonies, manners, clothing and accessories, music, visual design elements, etc. can get taken on deliberately or without thought.
This is just how we are. US mainstream culture is a mass of syncretism, from our political culture, to our language ("ketchup" is Chinese, "frankfurter" and "wiener" are German, "chili" is Nahuatl, "onion" is Latin, and "soda" is Arabic, so your standard chili dog and coke is about as syncretic -- and American -- as you can get), our religions, our design, our ... etc.
HOW syncretism happens is not defined under the term. It can be forced (Indian boarding schools, Catholic church incorporation of local gods as saints), it can be friendly, or it can happen unconsciously. Cultural appropriation is actually, therefore, a subset of cultural syncretism -- one way that syncretism happens.
It's a strange, post-colonial way of making syncretism happen, though. Whereas previous to modern decolonization, no one was truly uncomfortable with the idea that the Other was "barbaric" (it was only the argument over who constituted the Other, us or them), it's only since the 20th century that we've consciously moralized this position, and created an understanding of Otherness as having value and even virtue, simply because it is Other. This is the "noble savage" point of view, the exotifying point of view, the model minority point of view, that elevates Otherness rather than denigrating it. It's still a process of Othering, though.
It's also only since the 20th century that groups of people have accepted their identity as Other to the mainstream or dominant group, and turned it into a power position.
Today, in the United States, we have groups, tribes, cultures, of people whose primary identity is that of Other. Although we spend a lot of time saying "we are not Other," people of color ... African Americans, Asian Americans, etc. ... are people and Americans who must define themselves using a modifier. This is an Other identity, not a mainstream one. You can see the difference when you talk to my mom, who immigrated in her twenties and has been a US citizen for half her life: she'll tell you she's Chinese. Not Chinese American, Chinese. She has a mainstream identity from a different country. Here, she's a foreigner or immigrant, but there's a place where she is not an Other. I, on the Other hand, am Chinese American and multiracial. I was born an Other in the world, and have no home ground to go to where I'm not Other.
I make this point because accepting and claiming an Other identity, which has politically empowered a lot of people of color, has been largely misunderstood on the white side as meaning that "it's better to be colored than white." This is an unconscious understanding, but it feeds into the noble-savaging and Othering of POC. This comes about because it's accepted and empowering to be outspokenly proud to be "black," "Asian," "brown," "Latino," what have you, but it's not okay to use the same language to be outspokenly proud to be "white." So this gets translated into the following set of principles:
Which brings us to cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is a method of cultural syncretism that is specific to our primary-Other-identity, post-colonial, identity-politics era. It arises when a dominant culture, as I said above, raids a subordinate culture for cultural items that it then pulls out of context. The dominant culture -- in our case, white Americans -- doesn't properly acknowledge the borrowing -- or else the dominant culture makes a complete hash of the borrowing and then tries to pass it off as authentic. This happens for three reasons:
The reason I made this distinction between cultural syncretism in general and cultural appropriation specifically is that -- you guessed it -- cultural appropriation is about an exploitive power dynamic, whereas not all forms of cultural sycretism are. We see cultural syncretism everywhere in our mainstream culture because the US is an immigrant country and we really do meld a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. The power dynamic lies in the fact that the genuinely syncretic and layered culture of the mainstream is dominated by whites. That broad river of culture is considered -- consciously by POC and unconsciously by whites -- to be the home ground and domain of whites, even though everyone has contributed to it.
So when a new cultural item is added to that mainstream, it is done by whites deliberately, and in a manner that doesn't acknowledge its debt to any subculture or alternate culture. That mainstream is powerful because it is the mainstream and because it is the homeground of the white power-majority. Likewise, whites are powerful because they are white and because they control the powerful mainstream, both. It's true cultural synergy.
The principle of the mainstream is inherently melting-pot-ish, so once something has joined the mainstream, it becomes very difficult to pick out its origin and path to the mainstream. This is an aspect of the cultural mainstream that shores up its power. Likewise, people of color rarely see their cultural product make it into the mainstream intact because of the melting pot principle; it's easier to not give up power if you dismantle a subculture and incorporate it piecemeal: for every Boyz 'n' the Hood there will be twenty Colors's; for every Better Luck Tomorrow there will be twenty Fast and Furious sequels. Dismantle, then control. This is why the live action Avatar can be cast all white. Avatar already began the process of dismantling the cultures by making them secondary cultures.
Cultural appropriation is also hard for whites to understand because it's hard to distinguish between melding and appropriation when we simply don't know where each individual got it from.
For example: generation after generation, African American slang gets incorporated into mainstream white slang. At one point in this process, it's straight up cultural appropriation. But there does come a moment when enough white people are using the slang, that other white people are picking it up from whites in their own communities, without necessarily knowing its origin. At that point, it's already fused into the mainstream culture and the less "cutting edge" whites really aren't appropriating it ... because it's already thoroughly appropriated.
I'll give you a funny example: I left the US (Tucson) in 1992 and came back (to San Francisco) in 1998. During that time, a new set of "urban" slang hit the mainstream. Not a lot of this reached us in Europe during that time. So when I came back to the States in 98/99, I was working at a number of Asian American arts orgs. A lot of the volunteers had gone to ivy league colleges (model minorities) and I noticed something: all the people I knew who had gone to Yale were using this slang expression "My bad." I'd never heard that before so I pointed it out to a Yalie friend and asked if it was a Yale thing. She found that very amusing. Of course, subsequently, I heard it all over the place and it became clear that it was part of a slang set that -- once again -- came from African America. But by the time it reached me, it was so thoroughly appropriated that I was able to think -- just for a moment -- that it was an ivy league thing.
Because cultural appropriation either succeeds or fails -- that is, items are either thoroughly appropriated or they aren't -- it can be hard to tell with successful appropriations where they've been appropriated from. So a LOT of whites, who get these things from their white communities, hear POC screaming about cultural appropriation and are genuinely confused. Aren't we a melting pot? I didn't steal this from anybody! Even my Mom says it for chrissake!
There's also a lot of unconscious disagreement about a statute of limitations on accusations of cultural appropriation. For example, I still hear some Af Ams complaining about how Elvis jacked Little Richard and others. It's true, but we're so many musical generations down the line from Elvis, and most Af Am musicians wouldn't touch rockabilly with a ten-foot pole now, so can we let go of that? I'd still be willing to talk about Vanilla Ice, but there are folks who think that's over, too. So that's another issue that no one can agree on: when does it stop being cultural appropriation and just become culture?
Sadly, I have no answers for you today. Because, of course, cultural syncretism and its various methods are a spectrum, not a clearly defined taxonomy. And where your own actions fall on that spectrum will depend on your point of view.
One thing I can say, and have said before, is that when it comes to creating fictional worlds and fictional characters, you do have the opportunity to control your cultural appropriation, to step back and err on the side of not appropriating. That is not the same thing as not writing the Other, but I happen to fall down on the side of don't write the Other if you can't do it right. Rather, make sure that enough People of Color are getting published and noticed.
But that's just me.
I just got my voter registration card from Oakland's voter registration office. Today. January 14th. Well, yesterday now. It told me that I was officially a voter as of November 2, 2008, even though I registered two years ago.
Oakland is broken.
In other news, BART stations in downtown Oakland were closed briefly tonight as I was coming home because of a protest against the new year's day police shooting which turned violent near the end. I don't get behind the violence tonight at all -- it seems clear that a few people went downtown just to start some shit -- but the riot last week is something else.
I heard a lot of people saying things about how the riot didn't solve anything and people shouldn't have done it and they were mostly attacking downtown small businesses that are members of their own community and they're right, of course. But it seems pretty clear that riots happen only after too much shit has gone down and been swept under the rug. Then a really blatant incident happens and people just explode. It's not a good choice, but neither is letting police brutality against young black men go on and on, year after year, without consequences. Last week's riot was a consequence and, sadly, it may be what makes something happen in this case.
Even more sad is the fact that this protest is around an incident caused by the BART police, when the anger is really against the Oakland police. It may turn out that the murder was a terrible mistake caused by an inexperienced officer, whereas the city police commit brutal acts year after year as a matter of policy, and the attention may not be turned on them. The last time the BART police killed someone was in 2001, but the Oakland police had six fatalities last year.
The worst part about this is the misdirected anger, but I have a hard time feeling anything more than sad about it.
Before I really get into this, I should mention that I spent most of 2008 in a mild depression. I won't get into why, but I'm not ashamed of it and think that people should be clear when they're in a depression that they are (or were, in my case, I'm out of it again, thank oG) depressed. It helps for other people to know. I was depressed from about Sept 2007 to March 2008 and then again from June 2008 until November. I snapped out of it at the end of November and am going strong now.
So I was actually unable to fulfill many of my goals for this very specific reason: writing was mostly out because of it, and exercise was iffy. But here goes:
Okay this is a tricky one. I DID get started writing again in March and made some serious headway on da nobble, but got stuck again around June-ish. But by rearranging my work plan, I finished the second draft. Also in the spring, I wrote the initial pages and notes for a new novel. But then, of course, got stalled. Only drafted one complete new story -- in fact, I only came up with the one new short story idea. Did ZERO work on the YA fantasy, which may be dead.
Spent a large part of the middle of 2008 doing re-reads and reading fantasy and YA series for escapist purposes, so no, not "challenging." But I did read a bit more nonfiction and a few more books specifically for analysis purposes, so I did head in the general direction of this goal.
I got stalled by a hoop my insurance wanted me to jump through and then the depression got me. Made some strides, but they're void now and I'll have to go back and make them again this year.
I did get started again on atlas(t) and decided definitively to kill Galleon Trade. I also started a new, paid blog and did a good job with it, I think. But then, I got stalled on my personal blogs, and then got started again. Did a LOT of political writing on this blog, which I'm proud of, but I also think I alienated a lot of people with it. Unintended consequence. So, again, sort of.
I tried. I managed to do some exercise most weeks, although certainly never five days a week.
Lost it, got depressed, gained it back.
Yes! I actually met one of my goals!
No, not at all.
No, in some ways I did less of this, and in some ways, I did a bit. But my couch broke in June and I didn't get it fixed (part of depression) and it was a convenient, but also unavoidable, reason for me not to entertain. It's getting picked up by the upholsterer on Monday (no shit) so that excuse/reason will be gone after next week. Yee haw!
So I have to say, I'm not as badly off as I thought I was. I did make some headway on most of my goals last year during the times that I was able. When I was disabled by a (mild) depression, I still struggled, and I took steps to address the depression (mostly by getting the massages, still trying to exercise, and finding a shrink finally.) So I'm actually ... proud of what I was able to do last year, although bummed that I took such a hit, moodwise.
So next post, I'm setting goals for 2009, since -- on this reflection -- it DOES seem like goals-setting is worth my while.
I'm trying to get myself psyched about the final season of Battlestar Galactica, but it's slow going. There's been such deadeningly bad TV in between, that I can't seem to care very much.
Plus, the clips from Caprica suck.
In other news, I finally read Happy Hour at Casa Dracula by Marta Acosta, a Latina vampire chicklit. Yes, it is. Of course, it's genre-y and there are some plot detail problems, but IT'S ALIVE! IT'S ALIVE! HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH! Truly, I say to you, I loved it.
I just ordered the next two books on Amazon.
Take two, i.e. I wrote this entire post a couple of days ago, and then lost it because Typepad is stooopid. Also, I'm pretty sure I'm missing a couple from the list below because I didn't post about them or didn't tag them "whatcha readin'?" Sigh. Whatever.
I've bolded the books that really did something for me: made me think, changed or created an idea. You'll notice that I didn't include A Passage to India or Huckleberry Finn among these. Those were rereads, so they actually stank up my universe this year. Maybe if I read 'em again in a few years, they'll be good again.
One thing that's noticeable here is that I did a lot of escapist reading. I didn't intend to reread so much, nor read so much YA. Not that YA is automatically escapist, but I read deliberately escapist YA. This had to do with my being depressed for large chunks of the year (Jan - Feb and June - Nov). Escapist reading has always been a primary coping mechanism, but this year I also watched a lot of TV. Not as much as last year, mind you, because TV sucked so bad this year, but a lot.
Another thing was the lower count of strong female protagonists in this year's narrative. That was a little shocking. First of all, a number of my favorite women writers had male protags, such as Naomi Novik, Susanna Clarke, and Vandana Singh. Nothing wrong with that. But there were also a couple of books with female protags who were weak: Kate T. Williamson's memoir and Nora Pierce's novel. Of course, the memoir was about two years when Williamson was stuck living with her parents (and yes, the book was just. that. boring.), and Pierce's protag was the small, dependent child of a mentally ill single mother. But that raises the question of why literary narrative is so interested in women and girls at their weak moments and why we have to turn to genre fiction to get stories of powerful women and girls.
I'm certain that part of it has to do with the fact that the gatekeepers of lit fic are primarily male, and get to decide what is and isn't appropriate or "good." And I'm sure that part of it has to do with the fact that genre is engaged in a lot of escapism and therefore wish-fulfillment--of whatever sort--is on the menu. Wow, that's depressing. Any arguments there?
So, I'm thinking I'll probably be reading less from series in 2009 ;) and branching out a little more into other genres. There will be even more nonfiction since soon I'll be going into final research mode for da nobble, and because I want to do more reading for atlas(t). Other than that, I am, as always, open to suggestions (although I'm so distractable that I'll probably forget your suggestion as soon as I read it.) What did you read last year that blew your mind?
Knockout Mouse by James Calder
I met Calder once, at a friend's party in 2004 or thereabouts, and he told me about his books, which were a mystery series set in the Bay Area. I went out and got one -- a decommissioned library book -- from Amazon marketplace, and promptly failed to read it.
Too bad, 'cause I just picked it up last weekend and had a great time with it. It's grade A mystery genre, taking place along a well-drawn axis between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. I say "well-drawn" because the descriptions of places and social scenes are familiar and accurate, and don't trip my "bullshit" or "bad writer" wires.
Weaknesses: the protag is an aging Mission hipster filmmaker (you gotta love that he's the detective!) whose appearance is never described nor hinted at and whose motivations are presumably that he's the protag of a mystery. (The only motivation even suggested is that he was attracted to the murdered woman, but we all know that Mission hipster boys can't even be bothered to walk across a room for an attractive woman, much less solve a mystery.) Characterization overall is minimal, leaving many of the characters to knock helplessly against each other until they collect enough action to distinguish themselves.
But overall enjoyable and I'm definitely picking up the next one.
Happy New Year, everyone! Things are looking up!