Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pornography and objectification

....by Thaddeus

Every half-bright college grad whoever took a freshman women’s studies course to kill a breadth requirement can tell you that pornography’s greatest sin is that it “objectifies women”. For years, I’ve considered this argument to be so much half-baked horseshit, but lately, Ana Paula’s research has caused me to revise my thinking, though not, perhaps, in the ways conservative feminists would expect.

I still have my doubts about porn as something which has the power to turn women into objects. In the first place, porn is most certainly not exclusively directed towards het men anymore: women and gay men now have their porn, too, so at the very least, objectification has become more democractic . Secondly, human sex and love relations under conditions of late capitalism are objectifying in general. When both women and men qualify potential mates in terms of whether they are “winners” or “losers” and feel that happiness with a partner can be guaranteed by crossing off a check list of characteristics, then we can truly say that objectification – the treating of human beings as if they were instruments, things, or (better yet) items of consumption – has become the central motif of our dating culture. It’s always been my belief that porn reflects this culture rather than causes it, given that so many people who wouldn’t dream of watching icky porn size up potential partners with a gimlet eye as to their imagined (often wholly imagined) qualities and defects, as critical as any basement dwelling nerd whoever said of Jenna Jameson, “yeah, she’d be cute if she just got bigger implants”.

Objectification is late capitalism’s main erotic impulse, so my view has been that one should either reject it entirely or roll with it: it’s useless to try and calve off Buttman 15 from Titanic when it comes to talking about objectifying sexual fantasy. As my friend Sadakni once cogently observed, “I’m not so much against porn as I’m in favor of the production of better porn. The current porn bores the hell out of me”.

However, Ana’s recent research has shown me that porn may very possibly be objectifying in a way that other sexual/affective fantasies aren’t.

By “objectifying”, however, I don’t mean treating a person as a thing or object without regards to their personal characteristics (the traditional feminist critique of porn). I mean that porn is objectifying in that it ends up transforming a subjective and ultimately abstract concept (sexual pleasure) into something concrete and measureable.

Reading her straight male informants’ descriptions of their sexual experiences with prostitutes, Ana and has been struck with how often what’s classified as a “first-class” sex sounds as if it came right out of the script for a straight-to-video porno film. “Good sex”, for most of these men, starts with a striptease, moves on to oral, then to vaginal and concludes with anal or oral, together with a face shot or with swallowed ejaculate (the woman, it goes without saying, is the “catcher” for all this activity). There are no descriptions of feelings of pleasure in these men’s reports, of tastes, smells, textures – of, in short, the vast majority of sensual experience which make up the warp and weft of sexual pleasure.

It is not that these men can’t feel these aspects of sexual pleasure: I’m very sure they do. But sexual enjoyment is a very private, subjective and even perverse thing. For men who invest a big portion of their male identity on being able to share with other men the details of sexual exploits, discussing sexual pleasure is a risky affair. What if one’s tastes are not understood?

And this is where porn comes in: it gives a simple and easily understood grading system for sex whereby experience can be shared and compared with other men. It gives men a common language and script for describing and judging sex in a way that – perversely (given that it’s porn) – can’t be considered perverse.

One could say that this insight is a fruit of our research with men who have sex with prostitutes, but a brief comparison with the ways men describe “good sex” in general, outside of prostitution contexts, should show that porn-as-model-for-description holds true generally throughout the west. It’s certainly the case among the men I deal with in general in Brazil or the U.S.

For the better part of a generation now, it’s been presumed that male sexuality is visual and performatic. Now I wonder if that’s so true, however. I wonder if it perhaps ends up being that way because it’s so important for men to be seen as sexually normative by other men and the visual spectacle of performance is simply the easiest way such normativeness can be constructed, discussed and shared.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Rudy Giuliani and the majestic equality of the law

The poor have to labor in the face of the majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.

                                                                                       - Anatole France

Rudy sees a panhandler and imagines bloody murder.

Well, it’s official. The city of Rio de Janeiro will probably hire Rudy Giulani to tell us how to clean up our town for the Olympics. Let me tell you why this is a bad idea.

Rudy’s good at tooting his own horn and, to hear the man talk, he got rid of crime in the Big Apple in only 6 years by instituting a “zero tolerance” policy. According to Rudy, “It’s the logic of the broken window. You should fix it first before another is broken. In New York we tackled problems showing the population that disorder is not the example to be followed.”

Wonderful theory. In practice, however, what it means is that what Rudy did was simply apply Anatole France’s “majestic law” by basically outlawing poverty in Manhattan. “Disorder” was simply defined as behaviors that poor people engage in far more often than rich people and the police were then set to crack the heads of the “disorderly”.

Panhandling – asking for spare change on the street – was declared disorderly, as was being homeless or sleeping in subways and pissing on the street. Jaywalking was declared disorderly, as was prostitution and graffiti writing. Manhattan was thus made a free zone for those who had the disposable income to follow every city ordinance to the letter. Those who didn’t quickly learned to stay away.

And, by god, it turns out that in a capitalist society, if you get rid of the lumpen and ride tight herd on the working class, why crime does indeed go down – at least crime of the squalid, individualist sort (white collar crime unfortunately probably grew during the period: ain’t that right Bernie Madoff?)

But did Rudy really rid New York of crime? Let’s take a look at the facts…

Rudy was Mayor of New York from 1994 to 2002. Crime had already been dropping nationwide and in the New York region for several years before Giuliani took office and it continued to do so throughout Giuliani’s terms as mayor. The most intensive phase of Giuliani’s “zero tolerance”, however, occurred under the reign of Police Commissioner Bill Braton, from 1994-1996. Now take a look at what happens to crime in New York City and the neighboring city of Newark New Jersey from 1994 to 1996: it drops a bit in NYC but leaps up in Newark. For Brazilian readers not familiar with American geography, let me point out that Newark is just across the river from NYC. What was going on here was that a significant amount of criminal behavior seems to have migrated across the river from New York City.

In the following years, however, one can see that even crime in Newark took a big drop downwards. By 2002, at the end of Giuliani’s time in office, crime stats had dropped by about 50% in each city. Hold on, though: those stats are somewhat misleading. Note that in both non-Giuliani Newark and Giuliani-led NYC, violent crime dropped by almost exactly the same amount over the same period. Meanwhile, even in chaotic, poorly-administered, crime ridden Washington DC, violent crime dropped by about 30% during the same period. So while Rudy’s policies after 1996 may indeed have impacted upon crime, it’s doubtful whether they were responsible for the majority of the decrease, which seems to have been caused by an improving economy and demographic changes (i.e. more rich people living downtown and more poor and desperate people being shunted off to jail or to suburbs, where social chaos doesn’t impact on major city crime stats).

But the big thing Rudy introduced in New York and which most analysts seem to agree has had an impacted on crime has been CompStat. Those of you who have watched the hit T.V. series The Wire should be aware of what I’m talking about. That’s right: Rudy was responsible for bringing that CompStat into the world.

CompStat – or computer statistics is a management tool which pretty much allows police departments unprecedented control over crime statistics. Proponents claim that it allows police to quickly see and get atop of emerging crime patterns. Detractors claim that it can easily be abused to manipulate crime data so that improvements appear to be occurring where none actually occur.

CompStat vastly increases sensitivity to crime statistics all up and down the policing hierarchy and this, in turn, creates the sensation that “the numbers are everything”, which can lead to some fast and tricky play with the books. For example, a department which records 100 aggravated assaults and 400 cases of simple assaults in a year can easily create an illusory sense of improvement by using CompStat meetings to push for the qualitative reclassification of these crimes. If police manage to reclassify 75 aggravated assaults as simple, they can create the illusion of a huge drop in crime when, in fact, not much has happened.

In fact, CompStat has already been implemented in Brazil – in São Paulo – and, true to expectations, crime stats have dropped drastically. CompStat true believers will, of course, say this points out the system’s excellence. Anyone who understands the history of policing in Brazil, however, has cause to doubt that such a huge drop could, in fact, occur practically overnight simply through the implementation of what is effectively crime mapping. An integral component of the CompStat process is that it creates an enormous amount of “accountability” and thus competition between departments. The temptation to doctor statistics in such an environment is enormous and, of course, there’s no independent oversight to the process: we basically accept – or don’t accept – what the cops tell us.

But hey, the Military Police of Brazil would never lie to us, the citizenry, would they? Just looking at their corporate history should be enough to quell the doubts in any loyal citizens heart. If you know what’s good for you, that is…

Compared to Rio and São Paulo’s cops, the NYPD is a model of liberality and respect for human rights. Even so, the implementation of “zero tolerance” and CompStat on Mayor Rudy’s watch led to a distinctly human rights unfriendly environment. Several unarmed suspects were tortured and killed by the NYPD on Rudy’s watch, the most notorious case being the that of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was brutally sodomized by New York’s finest with a broken broomstick after being picked up for disorderly conduct in 1997. The general atmosphere of the Giuliani reign in New York was one of extreme disrespect for the rights of any human being who couldn’t afford a top-notch lawyer.

So this is the model which we are about to import to Rio de Janeiro, a city whose record of police violence and corruption is extremely well-documented. To the PM’s armored cars and assault helicopters, we shall now add an official ideology that sees any infraction as tantamount to murder and a computer statistics management program which will allow the police an unprecedented amount of control over the crime rate (on paper, if not in actuality).

What we are set to see is another assault on the poor of this city in the name of “hygiene” and “order”, the likes of which has not been seen since the Pereira Passos period in the early 20th century.

Is it too much to wonder whether the result will not be another revolt on the order of the Revolta da Vacina…?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Feliz Natal para todos!

Black women and white men

by Thaddeus
A recent trip to the U.S. really brought home the bi-racial dating issue to me. On our last three voyages to the U.S., Ana and I've noticed quite a few bi-racial couples, but always and without exception white women with black men. On this trip, we had a 24 hour layover in Atlanta and went out to see the city. Returning via MARTA to the airport after a long day, I leaned up against Ana, laying my head on her shoulder and closing my eyes. 10 minutes later, when I opened them again, the entire car was scowling at us.

It freaked Ana out more than me, to be sure. And what really freaked her out was the fact that all the passengers were black: "It was as if I was betraying the race," she said. "And yet I never see those kind of looks directed against black men - white women couples. What, because I'm a woman I can't sleep outside the race? Is that the deal here?"

Ironically enough, I'd just bought a library's worth of books about miscegenation, black women and interracial relationships in the U.S., so I've been reading up on this topic. Furthermore, Ana's recent line of research at USP ("What is it about Brazilian women?") touches on this point as does my on-going work with prostitutes and clients on Copacabana.

To put it simply, many authors have noted that one of the main differences between the Brazilian and American flavors of race relations is that heterochromatic relationships have traditionally encountered more (though far from total) acceptance in Brazil. This has led many Brazilians to conclude that Brazil is "less racist than the U.S". Meanwhile, Americans - and especially Black Americans - often feel that Brazilian tolerance of heterochromatic sex and marriage is, in fact, an expression of deepset and unchallenged white supremacist values. One can easily see these positions illustrated when one looks at both countries' literature, cinema and T.V. programing. Regarding sex between white men and black women, almost every single pop source I've ever seen in the U.S. situates these in a context of rape or extreme sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, Brazilian pop sources generally understand the same thing to be an expression of love which radically transcends the social limitations imposed by racism.

My view of the subject has yet to jell, but I feel I know enough to conclusively reject both the common American and Brazilian views regarding sex between black women/white men to be so much myth-making bullshit. Obviously, unequal power relations in both countries during and after slavery created massive opportunities for sexual exploitation and violence and just as obviously, the history of sexual and affective relations between black women and white men cannot be reduced to an unending sequence of rape and prostitution.

I`ve just finished reading J.W. Cash`s The Mind of the South (1940) and have found his views on the south's "rape complex" to be very illuminating and I can't help but wonder if this doesn't somehow play into current American views on sex between black women and white men. Basically, Cash takes a look at the claims and counterclaims regarding supposed black rape of white women in the south (remember that he was writing in 1940). While basically believing that such rapes were very few in number, Cash artfully sidesteps the whole issue by focusing on another point entirely. According to Cash, though "the actual danger [of black on white rape] was small,  it was nevertheless the most natural thing in the world for the [white] South to see it as very great, to believe in it, fully and in all honesty, as a menace requiring the most desperate measures if it was to be held off". This because, again according to Cash, the idea of virginal, pure, white southern womanhood was central to the notion of southern identity and "with this in view, it is obvious that the assault on the South would be felt as, in some true sense, an assault on her also."

We strike back to the fact that this Southern woman's place in the Southern mind proceeded primarily from the natural tendency of the great basic pattern of pride in superiority of race to center upon her as the perpetuator of that superiority in legitimate line, and attached itself precisely, and before everything else, to her enormous remoteness from the males of the inferior group, to the absolute taboo on any sexual approach to her by the Negro.... If it was given to the black to advance at all, who could say (once more the logic of the doctrine of his inherent inferiority would not hold) that he would not one day advance the whole way and  lay claim to complete equality, including, specifically, the ever crucial right of marriage?
What the Southerners felt, therefore, was that any assertion of any kind on the part of the Negro constituted in a perfectly real manner an attack on the Southern woman. What they saw, more or less consciously, in the condition of Reconstruction was a passage for her as degrading, in their view, as rape itself. And a condition, moreover, which logic or no logic, they infallibly thought of as being as absolutely forced upon her as rape, and hence a condition for which the  term "rape" stood as truly as  for the de facto deed. (Cash, 1940: 116)
Now, what I'm wondering is if something like this isn't what's currently operating in the U.S. today when we turn to black women and white men dating.

I do not wish to claim that Black American notions of peoplehood are simply a rerun (or a photo negative) of Southern White notions of the same: there are obviously many differences. However, it seems to me that there are certain general continuities between the two which might usefully illustrate the topic at hand. First and foremost, Black Americans' notions of identity are generally American concepts and by this I mean that Black Americans have not escaped from belief in  blood, heritage and purity which have traditionally informed American notions of self and Other. More importantly, it seems to me that Black Americans have deeply imbibed from the well of American belief in exceptionalism and manifest destiny.

In short, like their Southern White cousins, Black Americans have a tendency to see themselves as a people marked by an essentially homogenous past and set of experiences which transcend class, region and even history. Furthermore, this sense of "peopleness" is characterized by a belief in the blood transmission of said identity. Finally, like Americans in general, Black Americans tend to believe that, as a people, they have a  special relationship to God or Destiny - that they are a chosen people, in other words.

(I should take a moment here to point out the obvious: I am speaking in generalizing terms here, creating ideal types which might help us to discuss large-scale social phenomena. I am most emphatically not saying that everyone of such and such a type or nationality or whatever behaves in such and sort a way. I'm talking here about patterns and trends, not determinist laws. What I think we can say is that when you see a theme repeated a gazillion times in T.V. sitcoms, paperback romances, or on Oprah, one can say that it's a theme that has a certain impact on a given society, whether or not every single individual within said society agrees with it.)

Given all this, it seems to me that one of the things that makes black women's relationships with white men a relatively taboo subject in the U.S. is this abiding belief in Woman as the Mother of the Race, a belief whose ultimate matrix is precisely that southern enobling of womanhood as the centerpoint of racial identity that Cash talks about. Now, as far as this goes, this isn't such a peculiar thing: many anthropologists, after all, have pointed out that women are understood to be the "womb of the people" the world over. However, it seems to me that what gives this question a particular vehemence in the U.S. is the generalized American belief in themselves as an expansionist people with a particular covenant with God. In this sort of situation, marrying or dating outside of one's race can never be seen as a personal choice, but as an act which materially decreases the possibility that God's People will finally encounter salvation through the creation of heaven on Earth.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Aviso para os alunos de IFCS de Prof. Thaddeus, 22.12.2009


Fui ao IFCS hoje e descobri que o prédio estava fechado - uma supresa para mim, sendo que fui informado que ele estaria aberto até dia 22 de dezembro!

Temos, então, dois problemas:

1) Os alunos que furaram o prazo para entregar os trabalhos finais e que estavam esperando me encontrar hoje e amanha para conseguir entregá-los para uma nota reduzida. Visando a situação e excepcionalmente, estou aceitando trabalhos entregues por internet ATÉ DIA 24 DE DEZEMBRO no seguinte endereço: macunaima30@yahoo.com.br

2) Os alunos que queriam receber seus trabalhos de volta. Estarei na IFCS no dia 7 de janeiro, de 12:00-18:00hs, para devolver seus trabalhos e responder a quaisquer perguntas our dúvidas que vocês podem ter.

Quaisquer perguntas, podem fazer-las nos comentários, abaixo.

Abraços e boas festas para todo mundo!