15.5.10

New address!

Hello all! I'm moving over to WordPress, which has a more flexible platform than Blogger in a lot of ways. You can find me at http://cancrit.wordpress.com.

Newfoundland and Labrador: "Discovery" & Regional Stereotypes

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images and Thea Lim at Racialicious have both commented on an advertisement for tourism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

(Text reads: Discovery is a fearless pursuit. Certainly, this was the case when the Vikings, the first Europeans to reach the new world, landed at L’Anse aux Meadows. While it may only be a three-hour flight for you, it was a considerably longer journey a thousand years ago. But it’s a place where mystery still mingles with the light and washes over the strange, captivating landscape. A place where all sorts of discoveries still happen every day. Some, as small as North America. Others, as big as a piece of yourself.)
Their comments are quite astute: Lim points out that talking about the "European arrival in the Americas “Discovery,” rather than Colonisation or Genocide," both effaces a lot of colonial history, and effectively dehumanizes the indigenous peoples who were in Canada at the time of European arrival. She also points out that the discussion of "the land – or indigenous people, or their culture – as so mysterious and spooky" is at once way of dehumanizing and romanticizing indigenous peoples. (SocImages mostly restates Lim's analysis.)

Perhaps one of the most problematic elements of Canadian culture is the tendency to claim victimization (at the hands of our British rulers or our powerful American neighbours), while apparently forgetting that the nation only exists because of a seriously brutal colonial history. (Or, frankly, while apparently forgetting that we rejected the American Revolution because we wanted to be part of the British Empire.) So -- Lim and Wade are both 100% right about the problems with framing this ad. That said -- I'd like to add a little nuance, because there's more going on here.

First, Wade refers at one point to the Vancouver Olympics as "remind[ing] us relentlessly [that] Canada was home to many peoples when the Europeans arrived." That's true, of course, but it's a bit historically imprecise to talk about the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows as part of that bigger European arrival, or bigger colonialist project. L'Anse aux Meadows appears to have been maintained quite briefly around 1000 AD. Leif Ericson didn't "discover" Newfoundland, but neither did he try to settle it beyond the one temporary outpost. (And, of course, this all happened about 500 years before Cabot made landfall in 1497, marking the beginning of real European rule of the region.)

All of this seems to confirm the suggestion that this ad "effaces" colonial history -- in part by reframing European arrival as something separate from a bigger colonial project. It was, in the case of the Vikings at the beginning of the last millenium -- but in the 16th century, it wasn't. And as on the rest of the continent, it was brutal. The Beothuks, as you all probably know, weren't represented at the Vancouver Olympics because the last of them died in the early 19th century.

Second, I'd like to add that this advertisement is also seriously problematic in its representation of Newfoundlanders. (Full disclosure: I've never lived there, but my relatives on both sides go back several generations in NL.)

It's difficult, in general, to talk about Newfoundland in one breath with the rest of Canada. The province joined Confederation in 1949, making it by far the last province to do so. Until that time, it was a separate Dominion of Britain, and was more-or-less directly under British rule. Historically, it's been an economically poor ("have-not") province -- and it's been regarded as a bit weird and backwards by the rest of the country. Newfoundlanders are stereotyped as poor, uneducated, backwards simpletons with bizarre accents.

The children in this ad seem to be embodiments of this outpost stereotype. They're pictured with dirt-smudged faces, in clothing that looks to be homemade (the cable-knit sweater) or cast-off (the rest). They're playing with rocks in a grassy field, as what looks to be a bad storm rolls in. Unless I'm missing something, this is not how Newfoundlanders live. Certainly Newfoundland is beautiful,  has a pretty distinctive landscape -- and certainly most Newfoundlanders adore it for that reason. But, believe it or not, they're fully modern there. Rural mostly, yes. But if you're going there to see children with fairy-crowns of curly red hair whose parents for some reason don't tell them to come inside when it's obviously about to start pouring rain, you're going to be disappointed. (Especially after making that three-hour flight, all the way from Ontario or the northeastern US.)

12.5.10

Maternal death rates in the Globe and Mail

With thanks to Mary, Queen of Thoughts, I give you this image from Monday's Globe and Mail:
After talking to MQoT (one of my BFFs IRL!!!), I want to add a bit to her commentary. (Only to extend, not to contradict.)

First, as she and I discussed, it's mind-boggling to use only two colour gradations here. I realize that this map comes from a G&M special issue dealing with Africa, and so it makes sense to foreground issues of African maternal health. I also realize that there are some substantial debates going on at present about the inclusion of contraception and abortion in the current G8 initiative. The G&M has historically been a Liberal-identified paper, so it makes sense that they'd foreground this highly partisan issue at this point.

By using only two colour gradations, this map gives the impression that Africa is much, much worse off than all of the rest of the world (with the apparent exceptions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, if I'm reading this right).

Let's contrast this to some other representations. First, I'll include this diagram from ChartsBin (click for an interactive version):


This diagram uses progressive gradations of colour. It still shows that the maternal mortality rates in most of Africa are really elevated, but it also shows that there are elevated rates in parts of South America and southeast Asia that aren't accounted for in the G&M version. The WHO site includes a less attractively nuanced colour scale, but gives a similar impression.

Again, by setting the numbers differently -- and, crucially, by including multiple gradations of colour -- this map makes it clear that there are regions of Africa that are comparable to regions of South America and Asia in terms of maternal mortality. It also shows that Canada, Australia, and Western Europe have lower maternal mortality rates, clarifying that these areas are substantially more privileged than much of the world. And it makes a distinction between countries with higher rates of maternal mortality. Setting the threshold for BRIGHT RED at 300 deaths per 100 000 live births makes it impossible to see that there are big differences between regions and countries in the continent.

But -- perhaps that's the point. Africa is still the continent that we love to talk about in terms of sweeping generalizations that efface the substantial differences between its regions and nations, as many have pointed out. It is indeed the only continent that it's still acceptable to discuss in sweepingly generalized terms. While the G&M "special issue" on Africa might be well intentioned -- and I haven't read the print version, so won't venture a guess on that -- the basic effect of a diagram like this one is to reinforce the popularly imagined version of the continent as a unified, uniformly Othered place of disaster and suffering. There are major social justice and humanitarian issues to be considered in relation to the continent, and I'm willing to concede that many of those are out of proportion to what's experienced in the rest of the world. I object, however, to the Globe's sensationalized, uncritical depiction of the continent. If their goal was to explore a serious humanitarian issue with attention to economic, geopolitical, and cultural issues, they've failed. If their goal was to make Sub-Saharan Africa look like a pool of blood, however, I guess they've hit the mark.

1.5.10

BACKWATER

From Margaret Wente's interview with Camille Paglia, in yesterday's Globe and Mail:
Do you have any impression of the landscape in Canada right now?
I'm not that familiar with Canada. But when I was at York University a few years ago, I thought, “Oh my god, they are so shallow. Such a backwater.”
Thanks, Camille! Way to make me sorry that I assigned Break, Blow, Burn to my first-year writing students last year.

See, I'm on board with a lot of Paglia's arguments -- if not, precisely, with the ideology that underlies them. Take for example her ideas about education: she says in this article, as she has elsewhere, that teachers need to take a long view of history, and that we need to be pass on basic factual knowledge. That's absolutely true. This is, in fact, why I assigned Break, Blow, Burn: most of its essays are real gems that show careful attention to poetic form, poetic content, and cultural-historical context. That's exactly the kind of analysis that I wanted my students to see, and exactly the kind of analysis of which I hope they'll be capable.

But when she says derisively that "teachers have no sense that they are supposed to inculcate a sense of appreciation and respect and awe at the greatness of what these artists have done in the past" -- that's where she loses me.

I've taught a lot of Beethoven this year. I fucking love Beethoven. I have two Beethoven busts, people; I frequently hop around a little when I listen to the Eroica; and seriously, I think an awesome first date would involve hand-holding at a performance of the seventh symphony. And, as you'd hope, I have a solid understanding of his works -- of their form, their musical rhetoric, all of that. But it is not my job to make people feel "awe at [his] greatness". I will demand that they can track key changes and motivic development, I will demand that they can find the secondary theme, and I will ask them about the dramatic function of the coda. I will wear my awe on my sleeve, but I will not demand that my students feel what I do. Neither do I want my scholarship to be about "greatness".

In her interview with Wente, Paglia says, 
“Critical thinking” sounds great. But it’s a Marxist approach to culture. It's just slapping a liberal leftist ideology on everything you do. You just find all the ways that power has defrauded or defamed or destroyed. It's a pat formula that's very thin.
The question I pose back to her is this: what's the ideology involved in lamenting the lost prestige of the humanities, and in declaring that teachers need to teach "awe and respect"? That's a line of thinking that reifies cultural hierarchies, and that leaves us unable to consider the ways in which these hierarchies reinforce particular forms of power.

And it's the kind of thinking that leads people to declare Canada to be a "backwater". Always has been. I know that, with very few exceptions, we fail on those kinds of hierarchical terms -- the terms of progress, innovation, 'universal expression'. But -- that's a problem with the hierarchy, not with the nation.

Of course, I could be wrong. I may have spent the last ten years working up to a "long view" of Canadian culture, but I suppose that a weekend in Toronto and a lifetime immersed in High Art might have saved me the trouble of thinking all of this through. Dr. Paglia, is that the kind of informed assessment you want to make? I hope you see that when you argue on the one hand for close reading and historical knowledge and thick criticism, and on the other are willing to denigrate a national culture you haven't studied at all, it's doubly insulting.

28.4.10

"Glee": Five Lines that Should Change Your Mind

I'd hardly be the first to suggest that Glee is neither as subversive or as progressive as its quirky humour and 'inclusive' cast of characters might suggest -- but this week's episode, "Home", seems to me to be a tipping point in terms of bad, bad politics. If you love Glee for some reason, I think this might be the week to reconsider your feelings.

I give you five lines -- selected from many -- that should change your mind.


1) "Hold up, did she just say she was going to eat us?"

Mercedes goes on a diet this week, after being ordered by Sue Sylvester to lose ten pounds. As a plot point, this probably had to happen at some point: after all, can a larger woman appear regularly on television without at some point having to acknowledge a wish to change her body? While I'm not surprised that such a plot line emerges in the show, I'm floored by the way in which it's executed.

First, it's made clear that the slim and attractive cheerleader characters are all normally on some version of Mercedes's diet, and that they pragmatically regard subsisting on a (frankly deadly) liquid diet as the price they must pay for their status. When Mercedes is made miserable by her diet -- starting to picture her classmates as cakes and hamburgers before she faints in the cafeteria -- the "maintext" message is something along the lines of "diets don't work, and crash diets are really really bad!". But why is it Mercedes, the heavier African-American character, whose appetite is so enormous that it has to be caricatured, if numerous other characters are on the same diet? The subtext here is clear: to me, this moment dramatizes any number of cultural anxieties about the unruly appetites and voracious carnality of 'plus-sized' women -- and perhaps yet more problematically, about the unruly appetites and voracious carnality of women of colour.

2) "You're so lucky. You've always been at home in your body."

It gets worse after the cafeteria scene, as Mercedes and Quinn bond in the nurse's office about their experiences with food. Quinn tells Mercedes that she's "been there, hating [herself] for eating a cookie", but that she's "[gotten] over it". Mercedes acknowledges the racial difference here, saying that Quinn probably had a reasonably easy time coming to terms with her thin cheerleader body and "white girl butt".

But it's not being white and thin and popular that's made it possible for Quinn come to terms with food: it is instead the magic power of white-lady motherhood. "When you start eating for someone else," she says, "so they can grow and be healthy, your relationship to food changes. What I realized was, if I'm so willing to eat right to take care of this baby, why am I not willing to do it for myself?".

Two things there. First, Quinn's tummy appears to be smaller than it was before Christmas. Is she not still pregnant? Is she in fact eating? And second, why, in the 21st century, do we have a plot where a mean white girl gets mystically transformed by impending motherhood into -- what, Harriet Beecher Stowe?

Worse still:"You're so lucky," Quinn says. "You've always been at home in your body. Don't let Miss Sylvester take that away from you."

What does it mean when a character who personifies white middle American femininity enviously declares a larger African-American woman to be "at home in her body"? Does she long to be free from the shackles of conventional beauty? To be "at home" in a body that gives in to its appetites, regardless of social consequence?

Julia Starkey has written an essay, "Fatness and Uplift" (included in Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby's book Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere) that provides a really excellent comment on this kind of thinking.
My experience of being a fat black woman has not been a fat-acceptance wonderland. I don't feel like I have been shamed for my body, but I have felt pressure to have a more socially acceptable body size.... Because of the history and attitudes in my community, I feel a responsibility to act in a manner that adheres to a strict code of conduct. Part of the code is hiding its existence from mainstream white culture. I struggle with those pressures when I don't feel like pulling myself together, when I want to toss a scarf over my messy hair and go grab some milk at the store, when I want to snarl at someone rather than do racism 101 for the umpteenth time. Being told by white women that I have it easy when it comes to my body image dismisses all of the complexities and difficulties of my identity and reduces them to "Cosmo says you're fat. Well, I ain't down with that!".
Making assumptions about someone's identity and culture based on fragments of pop culture is dehumanizing....Sometimes what you think is fact is based on false premises. Black women do not live in a fat-acceptance utopia, and you're making racist assumptions if you think they do. (Emphasis mine.)
Of course it's possible to read Quinn's comment as one about Mercedes's self-confidence in general. But -- if it's not that, or not just that, it's also a comment about longing to cross to the other side, to the "fat-acceptance utopia" of African-American culture. As Starkey makes clear, that's a longing that depends on false assumptions about other peoples' lives. When you combine these false assumptions with the power dynamic implicit in the interaction between Quinn and Mercedes, you've got a major problem on your hands.

And don't tell me that it didn't ring false to you when Quinn's hand was the first one raised in the auditorium when Mercedes asked, "how many of you feel fat?". Or -- when it turned out that Mercedes's grand gesture of resistance to Sue Sylvester was a bland performance of a Christina Aguilera song about self-esteem.

3) "You always give me the right advice, Mr. Schuester."

Am I wrong, or does "good advice" in Glee always get passed from a person with more power to a person with less power? This week April appears. She's now not only a drunk, but also the mistress of a very old, very wealthy strip-mall owner -- which doesn't stop her from throwing herself at Will. Despite being in the midst of a divorce, Will declines her advances, and gives her kind, brotherly (or fatherly, or paternalistic) advice: "Are you really where you want to be? Being somebody's mistress? Don't you think you deserve a little bit more than that?...You're always going to feel empty inside until you really find a home." She agrees to ditch the old man, saying, "You always give me the right advice, Mr. Schuester."

And thank goodness for his advice: when April ditches the old man, who promptly drops dead, she makes off with $2 million in hush money that will apparently make it possible for her to head off to Broadway. So, of course -- doing the right thing pays off. It's wonderful! And it tells us that women who listen to the kindly Mr. Schuester -- who "always gives the right advice" -- end up better off.

This is a trend in Glee. We've got kindly white people (Mr. Schuester and Quinn in this episode) giving valuable advice to their social subordinates, with magical results. All of this goes to show, of course, that the white people (especially men!) in power are actually really wise and benevolent, and that if you were to listen to them, be nicer, work harder, settle down into a 'real home', and eat nourishing food that would properly sustain any fetuses you have might have in your womb, everything would be better for everybody.

4) "We got a deal here, right? I don't try to change you, and you don't try to change me."

Kurt's father, Burt, is dating Finn's mother, after being set up as part of Kurt's diabolical plan to get closer to Finn. All of this backfires, though, when Burt and Finn get along a bit too well, bonding about what Burt calls "guy stuff" (i.e. football). When Kurt confronts Burt about this, Burt reminds Kurt that he loves him, and rebuffs Kurt's suggestion that Finn is the "son [he] always wanted". Kurt should accept this, of course, because Burt is 'sympathetic to [his] 'stuff'" and sat through Riverdance three times. And further, they've got a deal: "I don't try to change you, and you don't try to change me."

Isn't that some version of the deal that has been struck with the "queer community" in general in the twenty-first century? "Okay, I guess you're here to stay -- and I guess we can be civil to you. But definitely do not, under any circumstances, try to change us. We will not be converted to your 'lifestyle'."

And of course, it's not coincidence that "gay" is a lifestyle on Glee. Kurt is a charming character in some ways -- but his queerness is made apparent mainly through his love of musical theatre, cosmetic products, and interior decorating. His sexuality is only on display in song (as in the "House is Not a Home" number, which he directs to Finn): it is his lifestyle, his interests and fashion choices, that his father doesn't "try to change".

The entire arc of this plot, of course, also functions to cast Kurt as a schemer, and an outsider to normative family relations. Witness the end, where Burt and Finn reconcile and sit down to watch a basketball game -- while Kurt, feeling the loss of his father as punishment for pursuit of Finn, stands outside, spying through a window like an hysterical woman scorned in a stalker movie.



5) "This family manages. We get by. You just don't know any differently because you think what we have is normal."

The counter to this relationship, of course, is that of Finn with his mother. Finn isn't pleased about having Burt take his long-dead father's place, and he declares that he likes his family as it is. His mother replies: "This family manages. We get by. You just don't know any differently because you think what we have is normal." Later, she says, "We don't need any more memories or ghosts. We need a family. A home."

This is a more obvious example, I think, than the others I've raised, but let's recap: a family is not a family, nor a home a home, without a male head of household. A single mother and son can "manage" or "get by", but must indeed be haunted by their lost husband and father. They cannot be happy until they allow this lost husband and father to be replaced. And a young man who has never known his father cannot, either, know what "normal" is.

26.4.10

Instruments and Ideology

My sister had some pictures taken recently for an album release -- and gosh, if they aren't adorable! Let's take the one, for example.


She's happy, delightfully signalling her Eastern Canadianness with her galoshes, and standing on iconic Haligonian territory (even if she's blocking the view of the clock tower). Yet when I was giving her feedback on the pictures, I said, "ooh, Julia, don't use that one!". Not because I don't like the picture -- but because she's in fact holding a cello. In the others, she's holding her usual instrument, a guitar.


Now, in my fairly professional estimation, Julia is a much better guitarist than she is cellist, and she's certainly a more serious guitarist than cellist. For that reason, it seems more honest for her to pose with the guitar. But that's not why I had this reaction. It's because she's not a real cellist.

We talked about this, and the conversation was handily archived by Gmail. (What follows is edited to remove the parts where I told her that she's a terrific guitarist, on the whole making it sound like I'm a jerk.)

Julia: I actually will be playing cello on the album, and strangely I have been getting lots of cred on my cello lately. Did you know since being the only cellist at the ECMAs I have played on 4 studio albums with cello? (though, to be fair, one was [ex-boyfriend's] band)
me: wha?
That's... weird to me!
Julia: Its weird to me too. (cello) I am mediocre, and not classical at all but... people love it! And fretless playing by ear? Is EASY and amazing on an instrument tuned in fifths.
me: See, I've just never thought of you as a serious cellist
and some snooty part of me is like, "JULIA, STOP DOING THAT".
If that makes sense :P
Which... I am going to admit it doesn't
me: Apparently I am invested in high art values
and think that people shouldn't be non-serious players of string instruments.
haha
Julia: ME TOO! I am happy to hear you say that. People get angry at me for being shy/tentative or angry at being called a cellist... but I always say "HAVE YOU HEARD CELLISTS?" I do not have their discipline or technique.
me: haha
OH THANK GOD
I am so relieved to hear YOU say THAT
And... must point out that we have internalized the same values :p
Julia: But I think.. in some ways for other people it is really refreshing and sounds... inventive and weird that I play cello like a guitar or percussively? But I often when coerced to play shall say I am an abomination to the art in some ways..
So -- what is this all about? If Julia were to pick up, say, a ukelele or a zither after years of playing the guitar, no doubt I'd think that was fine. If she had pictures taken of herself and a hammered dulcimer I'd probably say, "that's weird", but would have no such intense "JULIA STOP DOING THAT" reaction. And all of this, I have to admit, is because the cello is to me a "serious" instrument, one that should not be played by those who don't have proper conservatory discipline and technique. There's room for extended techniques, or pop cello, or jazz cello in this formulation -- as long as you've got the conservatory training first, and are choosing to set it aside. To be a guitarist who plays the cello "like a guitar or percussively", well, that can't be a musical activity of real value. It's an affront to an instrument with a long and storied past, and an affront to all of those conservatory cellists who spend five hours a day thickening the coffee-bean shaped callouses on their thumbs.

Or -- is it? I almost viscerally believe what I've just written. But who's to say that only those with a particular kind of training are 'authorized' to make music on a particular instrument? Would I have this kind of reaction to unschooled performance on an instrument that didn't so strongly signify the Western High Art tradition? And would I have this reaction at all if I hadn't spent the last ten years in university music departments?

I raise these questions because I think of myself, on the whole, as being quite critical of the ideologies that underlie our attitudes about music. I spend a lot of time digging through these ideologies, and I do a lot of work to distance myself from them. But apparently, my investment in the cello as a Serious Instrument cannot quite be undone by critical analysis, or even by a picture of my much-adored youngest sister looking much-adorable with a cello she plays like a guitar.

Now, the endpoint of this thinking in this case is, probably, me giving Julia a scolding for not practicing her scales or bowings (a scolding that she'd shrug off, because she is used to me being scoldy). But imagine how this could play out if I weren't her mostly benevolent, if crotchety, older sister -- if, say, I were a non-benevolent and very crotchety orchestra director, and my objection weren't to a lack of particular training, but to the absurdity of a woman playing the cello. (What kind of woman, after all, would want to play an instrument that's held between the legs?) Or -- what if my objection were to people of colour playing orchestral instruments, in general?

Well -- I'd be in really fucking esteemed company, apparently. I'd be just about set to take over the Vienna Philharmonic.

And here's the point.

If you're hung up on who is making the sounds, instead of on the sounds themselves -- and we are never hearing only the sounds themselves -- you'll probably miss some real aesthetic delights. More importantly, if you don't interrogate your ideas about who "should" be making particular sounds, you will shut entire demographics out of particular kinds of music making. That, it shouldn't need to be said, is absolutely not okay. And that, as anybody who's taken a music history survey should know, is how it's always been.

I'm shocked to realize that I have such a deeply held sense of propriety in relation to an instrument I've never played. (Especially since I've delighted in INTENTIONAL breaches of propriety on instruments I do play...) And so I make an incremental step forward, and admit that my dear sister might well be making tremendous, unorthodox noises with her cello -- even if she's not a 'cellist'. (Giv'er!)

27.3.10

The Week in Evil (27/3/10)

So much evil... where to begin?

1) Oh, here. While being sentenced for two rapes committed on the York University campus in 2007, Daniel Katsnelson declared that he "hopes some day the victim will be able to take away something positive from this, as he has,” and “suggested that now maybe she will know to keep her doors locked". Which brings us to this clever list, and also very clearly to this -- though obviously not to this.

2) Similar theme, but it gets a bit more horrifying here. Bibi Aisha, a young Afghan woman, was married at 10 to a man who kept her in a stable until she began menstruating at 12. She was jailed when she tried to escape, and upon release returned to her husband's family (by her father) -- who cut off her nose and ears as punishment for 'shaming' the family. Donations to fund reconstructive surgery and other assistance can be made here.

3) And last, I'll point to allegations by Inuit that the RCMP slaughtered up to 20 000 sled dogs in Nunavut, northern Qu├ębec, and Labrador between 1950 and 1980. If you want to erode your belief in the decency of Canadians, read the comments. Mixed in with the statements of outrage (the kind that maybe make you hope that humans are not such wicked beasts after all), we find these gems:

"I think RCMP went to Nunavik, saw how the dogs were treated and the condition they were in and thought they were doing the right thing by putting them down."

"
My father was an officer in the north at this time. The citizens were warned to fence their dogs and keep them on leashes when out walking. The reason being the dogs were attacking people and killing people. The dog cull protected the community."

"my father shot my dog and i want money too.
"

So -- in other words -- an mass animal slaughter that was part and parcel of a colonialist cultural genocide was, of course, carried out for the good of the colonized. And my goodness, if only they wouldn't whine so much about it. We can pretend that these aren't the sentiments underlying comments like these, but we'd quite simply be lying to ourselves.

Now: take all of that anger -- I stirred it up on purpose, people -- and do something good with it.