sensuous seas, or wading through deep histories

In a dream, I ride out of a cove with my family in an aging, fiberglass speedboat. The sky is dark and cloudy, and there are cold, black lops on lops all around us. The boat and waves crash against each other, spraying me with salty ocean water. We hit a large wave that ruptures over our heads, leaving all of us drenched. The salty fluid stings my eyes and blurs my vision.

As I woke up, I remembered the first time I got saltwater in my eyes. I was around eight years old, and my friends and I were playing on a wharf in a part of my hometown called Deep Tickle. In Newfoundland, ‘tickle’ is a vernacular term for a short, narrow strait. That day was extremely hot, and my pals Jamie and Brandon decided to swim out in the water just off the wharf. I loved swimming, but had never been immersed in saltwater before. I was hesitant and decided I wasn’t going to join them, until an older kid picked me up and threw me over the wharf.

In my hometown, this is the way many children learn how to swim. In fact, when my sister was five, she was thrown over our family wharf by an older cousin. As I revisit both of our experiences being submerged in our familiar yet unknown salty, smelly and slimy oceanic other, I form a new illustration of the way we both expressed corporeal instincts and reflexes to ‘stay afloat’ in an unknown environment. Unbeknownst to me as a child, being tossed into saltwater for the first time would help me understand more clearly historical forms of struggle and stamina needed to survive in rural Newfoundland.

Using the embodied fluid knowledge I discovered in the water beyond the wharf, this post grapples with the tickling “wet ontologies” (Steinberg and Peters 2015) of saltwater swimming. Thinking of the ‘tickle’ as a significant spatio-temporal environment in my life and familial history on an island, as well as a sensuous stimulation of the body, I ask after modes of skin and saltwater encounters to form tingly and murky intimate notions of ‘staying afloat’ in rural Newfoundland.

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Leaving Night Island. August 2015. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

As I was deciding whether I would join my friends in the water or stay on the wharf, I carefully examined the wet substance from which Jamie and Brandon were shouting at me to ‘stop being such a wimp’. The refracting sunlight made me see a bright green pool with seaweed, kelp and other forms of aquatic plantlife with strange textures and colours. We used to hang out on this wharf all the time, but had never thought of swimming in the water. All of us had seen minks crawling and swimming around the wharf. I was afraid one of them might attack or bite me if I were in the water. And before I knew it, I was touching the surface.

And then I was submerged and my fear become more fluid. I opened my eyes underwater: the environment below was a brighter green than the one I had observed from above. The water was thick and made my body tingle. When I lifted my head above the surface, my eyes were irritated and my vision blurry, as if I were peering through a viscous film back into the familiar world from which I was just dislodged. This fluid encounter, the saltwater on my skin and in my eyes, illustrated what Eva Hayward might call “a visual-hapticity that relies on proximity rather than distance” (2011: 265).

There was no denying that my body and the water had created a sensuous splash. My submersion was not graceful or playful, it was quite literally a slap in the face, with my head slipping under the waves and my vision becoming altered. This visual-haptic encounter was one of seeing and touching forces creating their own splash, drawing connections between the boy who had picked me up and thrown me into the water, the burning in my eyes, the salt in my mouth, the goosebumps on my skin from the cold water, and the rippling and distribution of waves I had influenced with my body. Hayward says that “sensations are produced through relationships…sensing is a distributed process” (274). Indeed, sensating the sea because of its closeness, its encircling of my body, can be read as an acknowledgement between bodies and rural environments.

The sea salt tickling my body in the Tickle might constitute both an irritating itch and a titillating and vibrant example of confronting and facing the abject – in this case the dirty, murky water of the cove that was no doubt filled with human disposals. The dream of traveling by boat triggered these reflections, once again allowing me to reconsider my own relations to water and the “churnings, driftings, and reborderings” (Steinberg and Peters 2015: 257) that living and existing in close proximity to the ocean can re/teach me about sensuous seas and rural subjectivities.

Remembering how rural Newfoundlanders have developed relationships with the sea over time – resettlement travels where houses were floated across the water to a new destination, or my grandfather walking across miles of thin ice in February 1962 to bring my grandmother and newborn mother home by sled, as well as sealing and fishing and exploring wet worlds – has taught me, above all, that when the life of a community revolves around water, there’s no point in being afraid of it. Looking back, there were no minks in the water that day, and there was no reason to be scared. I learned how to stay afloat, and how to be just a little more tough.

References

Hayward, Eva. 2011. “Ciliated Sense,” In Theorizing Animals: Re-thinking Humanimal Relations, eds. Nik Taylor and Tania Signal, 255-80. Netherlands: Brill.

Steinberg, Philip & Kimberley Peters. 2015. “Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking,” In Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33: 247-64. DOI: 10.1068/d14148p

Stuart Hall and Cultural Identities

Stuart Hall’s 1989 essay, “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” is a seminal piece on race and identity, situated on the crossroads between film studies and cultural theory. It has been particularly influential on my theoretical approach to Black independent cinema (specifically the L.A. Rebellion, as I wrote about last week), so I thought it only fitting to showcase some of the key points that have helped guide my thinking.

Connecting issues of representation alongside enunciation, or “the positions from which we speak or write,” he observes, “Though we speak, so to say, ‘in our own name,’ of ourselves and from our own experience, nevertheless who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of, are never exactly in the same place” (Hall 68). In other words, identity is much more complicated than we are often made to think.

Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps, instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished historical fact, which the new cinematic discourses then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation (Hall 68).

Hall outlines two different approaches to ‘cultural identity’:

The first approach to ‘cultural identity’ views it as a kind of shared culture. Here, there is the expectation that behind individual ‘selves’, there is an underlying, collective, ‘one true self’, whereby people are united by “common historical experiences and shared cultural codes” (Hall 69).

The second approach is different, but not completely oppositional to the first. It acknowledges that while our conception of ‘cultural identity’ seems to thrive on notions of similarity, elements of difference are also crucial to our construction of identity.

 We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity’, without acknowledging its other side – the differences and discontinuities which constitutes, precisely, the Caribbean’s ‘uniqueness’ (Hall 70).

This second approach views identity as something not fixed, but always in flux. As Hall puts it, “Cultural identity … is matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being,'” adding, “it belongs to the future as much as to the past” (70).

I like this way of thinking not only of histories, but of futures, too. Cultural identities are not ahistorical. They are not resistant to the changes that come with time, place and history (Hall 70). Cultural identity, therefore, “is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute Return” (Hall 72).

If we think about this interplay of time, perhaps we can better understand this notion of ‘becoming,’ not as something linear, but rather as a kind of web, weaving across time, place, history, and culture. A web where lines can be added, broken, mended, forgotten, remembered. And because it is always in process, a web is never really ‘complete’; conversely, no matter how many lines we add or mend, we can never really return to that original form. The web is positioned within a particular time, place, history, and culture.

 Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant trans-formation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past (Hall 70).

Reflecting on his childhood in Kingston, Hall explores the influence of ‘Africa’ on Afro-Caribbean identity. While the ‘discovery’ of African connections in the Caribbean lead to a new construction of “Jamaican-ness,” or an “indiginous cultural revolution” in the 1970s, Hall is still wary of how Africa might be viewed as ahistorical. He argues, “The original ‘Africa’ is no longer there. It too has been transformed. History is, in that sense, irreversible” (75).

What perpetuates this notion of an ‘old’ or ‘original’ Africa? Well, like many issues of representation, it has its roots in the ‘European Presense’ (Hall 76). In colonial fashion, Europe has a tendency to speak for ‘others,’ situating Afro-Caribbean identity (in this case) within the “dominant regimes of representation” (Hall 76). Think of typical Hollywood portrayals of Africa, for example, where self-representations are silenced and exotic misrepresentations run rampant.

Hall thus calls upon Caribbean cinema to reclaim representations from the ‘European Presense’. To return to Africa, but ‘by another route,’ and to re-tell how Africa has actually become, and how it continues its becoming (Hall 76).

As Hall argues, cinema is not a “second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists,” it is a “form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover who we are” (Hall 80).

If identity is constructed within, not outside, representation, then we must reevaluate who is being represented, and who creating those representations (Hall 80).

Then, what kind of futures can our representations hold?

 

Sources:

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” Framework, vol. 0, no. 36, 1989, https://search-proquest-com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/docview/1311784516?accountid=12378.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

body as archive

These days, it’s not particularly revolutionary to suggest that the body is an archive. The popularity of DNA mapping means that the whole idea of biological archives has become commonplace. Companies like Ancestry promise to reveal your family histories and to tell you “what makes you uniquely you.” They promise to reveal more than your family tree – they suggest that they can map your history through time.

As Carolyn Abraham writes in her 2013 book, The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us,

The past is never lost not completely; we carry it with us, in us, and we look for it in our parents and in our children, to give us our bearings and ground us in the continuity of life. And the past accommodates. It shows off in dazzling, unpredictable ways – a familiar gait, a gesture, the timbre of a voice, a blot of colour along the tailbone. The body has a long memory indeed. Written in the quirky tongue of DNA and wound into the nucleus of nearly every human cell are biological mementos of the family who came before us. And science is finding ways to dig them out, rummaging through our DNA as if it were a trunk in the attic (4-5)

It’s a seductive science, this science of DNA-storytelling. It promises the world and more. It tells us it can end racism. It says we are all one family. It tells us that our origins are not murky; that they can be measured just through an analysis of our saliva. Carolyn Abraham describes her own heady encounters: “I suddenly imagined the human genome map as an actual map, capable of leading a person back through her foggy history, pointing the way to foreign lands and forgotten stories.” (16).

I dove into this murky pond on St. Patrick’s Day 2017. A company offered to tell me how much Irish I had in me. “None,” I thought to myself. “Absolutely none.” It’s an odd thing, living on this island that is so very tied to Ireland and knowing that there’s no hint of the Irish in you.

I manufactured all the spittle I could (I’d already read somewhere that it was actually quite a challenge to produce even the bare minimum required), and sent the kit off. Every few weeks, I’d get a computer-generated email telling me that they were working on things. And then, a few weeks ago, presto, there it was: an email that would tell me everything I ever wanted to know about myself.

The results were not particularly surprising: Northern European, South Asian, and African. I knew all of this already. And all within exactly the proportions I’d expect, knowing what I do about my family history. The only oddness was the 1% Pacific Islander, which I suspect, is just the result of however the company chose to determine the categories they’re working with.

Because here’s the thing. What is Europe? Who is Europe? What is Africa? Who is Africa? What is South Asia? Who is South Asia? Who is a Pacific Islander? Who determines any of this, and on what premises are these tests even based?

As the research of Kim TallBear and Alondra Nelson, among others, reveals, the science of DNA mapping is premised on problematic histories. In particular, even as companies promote a ‘we are all one’ narrative, their testing relies on notions of “purity” that perpetuate long histories of scientific racism.

The biological archive can offer some stories, but perhaps not the most important stories, about who we are and how we live together. And so these results, while promising the ‘truth’ of one’s history, must in the end be seen as not much more than a game.

The body, as archive, holds many more revealing stories. “Every body has a story and a history,” writes Roxane Gay at the very beginning of her newly released Hunger: a Memoir of (My) Body.

As a result of fetomaternal microchimerism, women will carry their reproductive histories within their bodies. We also know that bodies are fundamentally affected by the social experience of poverty. So, too, have researchers begun to uncover the intergenerational health effects of trauma. Trauma lodges itself in the body and can be passed on to subsequent generations.

Our bodies are sensitive instruments, keenly attuned to the world in which we live. Our bodies respond to all the things that happen to us. In and through them, we can read the stories of our lives.

“Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger,” writes Roxane Gay. What follows is a raw and deeply intimate examination of Gay’s body and her relationship with it. Gay’s body is her archive of her life: it carries not only her experiences, but also all of her emotions. It carries her longings and desires. It carries her family history. It carries her grief. It carries her rape. And most of all, it carries her hunger.

As I think through family histories, pasts and present, I wonder about the stories lodged in my veins, my skin, my psyche. Beyond DNA, what other stories might my own body reveal?

How do we access the archives of the body? How can we ever understand the stories it has to tell us? And what will we do with those stories once we’ve found them?

 

References

Abraham, Carolyn. The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us. Random House Canada, 2013.

Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. HarperCollins, 2017

Nelson, Alondra. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconcilation after the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Reardon, Jenny and Kim TallBear. “’Your DNA Is Our History’: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property.” Current Anthropology, 53.S5 (April2012): S233-S245.

TallBear, Kim. “Narratives of Race and Indigeneity in the Genographic Project.” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 35.3 (2007): 412‐24.

Rebels With a Cause

Since beginning my research on Julie Dash’s films this past winter, I have become fascinated by a particular movement in US black independent cinema dubbed, the “L.A. Rebellion.”

Following the civil unrest of the late 1960s, marked by the Watts Uprising of 1965, as well as the ongoing Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, a group of young African and African American students entered the UCLA School of Film, Television, and Theatre as part of an “Ethno-Communications initiative” launched to address the concerns of communities of colour (“The Story of the L.A. Rebellion,” n.p.). Some notable students associated with this initiative include: Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woodberry, and of course, Julie Dash.

According to Ntongela Masilela, the cultural aims and artistic practices of this group were “inseparable from the political and social struggles and convulsions of the 1960s” (qtd. in Martin, 2). Unlike Hollywood, these filmmakers drew inspiration from Third world theorists, philosophies of black consciousness, the practices of the Black Arts Movement, and the politics of the New Latin American Cinema movement (Martin 2; Reid 10).

Essentially, this new generation of West Coast-based filmmakers rejected the imposed standards of Hollywood, viewing it as limiting to “their artistic and political vision of black life and experience” (Reid 10). By choosing to work within “the shadows of mainstream film,” the L.A. Rebellion created a “paradigm shift in the history of black independent filmmaking” (Reid 10).

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Still from Killer of Sheep. Directed by Charles Burnett. Milestone Films, 1978. Image source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion).

According to Toni Cade Bambara, members of the L.A. Rebellion, who she calls “Black insurgents,” lived by an alternative set of filmmaking philosophies, including their belief that: “accountability to the community takes precedence over training for an industry that maligns and exploits, trivializes, and invisibilizes Black people” (qtd. in Rocchio, 173). Ultimately, their goals were to interrogate the conventions of mainstream cinema, to screen socially conscious content, and to consider alternatives that challenge past (mis)representations of Black individuals and communities (Rocchio 173).

In the words of one UCLA rebel, Haile Gerima:

 … I couldn’t imagine how a white supremacist structure such as Hollywood, an industry of culture that has created havoc to all human beings, could be a base for me to peacefully tell my story and experiment. Hollywood didn’t have any obligation to tolerate my search in form. The only term that Hollywood accepts is the commercial mould. And once you cease to operate within that paradigm, the industry will reject all the reasons you have to tell a story (qtd. in Reid, 11).

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Still from Child of Resistance. Directed by Haile Gerima, 1972. Image Source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2015/12/18/la-rebellion-book).

In a previous blog post, I wrote about Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1984), and contemplated how her argument might apply to filmmaking.

Lorde argues: “… the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change ” (Lorde 112). Even years later, Lorde’s words seem to reverberate through the philosophies and practices of the L.A. Rebellion. Recognizing the limitations of Hollywood standards – narratively, aesthetically, and politically – the Black insurgents refused to conform to the rules of the ‘master’s house’.

 What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable (Lorde 110-111).

Understanding that real change could not take place by using the very tools of a historically racist industry, the UCLA rebels opted films styles and narrative forms that were in line more with African, Latin American, Asian, and European filmmakers who similarly worked against the Hollywood grain (Reid 11). For example, using handheld cameras created a characteristic trembling movement, shooting in familiar, urban locations, favoring discontinuous editing and nonlinear narratives, and ‘bad’ lighting, are some of the distinctive characteristics of the black independent film movement (Reid 11). Like the Italian neorealists and the French New Wave auteurs, many of these style choices were brought about by financial restraints, but it was this gritty and experimental frugality that actually helped set the rebel’s films apart.

At the same time, it wasn’t just economics that influenced L.A. Rebellion filmmaking practices. Ultimately, every aesthetic and narrative choice had a political purpose. Even the traditional use of frame rates was contested. For example, as director of cinematography for Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Arthur Jafa not only questioned “most generic film conventions,” but he also questioned “whether the standard of twenty-four-frames-per-second rate is kinesthetically the best for rendering the black experience” (Bambara xv).

Toni Cade Bambara offers a wonderfully astute analysis of a specific scene in Daughters that captures Jafa’s unconventional use of frame rates:

 A particularly breathtaking moment begins with a deep focus shot of the beach. In the foreground are men in swallowtail coats and homburgs. Some are standing, others sitting. Two or three move across the picture plane, coattails buffeted by the breeze. They speak of the necessity of making right decisions for the sake of the children. Across a stretch of sand glinting in midground, the children play on the shore in the farground. Several men turn to look at the children. In turning, their shoulders, hips, arms, form an open ‘door’ through which the camera moves; maintaining a crisp focus as we approach the children. The frame rate changes just enough to underscore the children as the future. For a split second we seem to travel through time to a realm where children are eternally valid and are eternally the reason for right action. Then the camera pulls back, still maintaining crisp focus as we cross the sands again and reenter the present, the grownups’ conversation reclaiming our attention (Bambara xv).

With this, we see what kinds of stories can emerge if we actively challenge the conventions of filmmaking. By rejecting the ‘master’s tools,’ the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion helped conceive and create a cinematic landscape that worked to represent individuals and communities that existed beyond the borders of Hollywood.

 When we call ourselves film-makers it’s because we wrote, produced, knew how to do the sound, operate the camera, to light, and when we took it into post [production] we’d edit our films physically, as well as mix the sound. We were totally immersed in it. We weren’t making films to be paid, or to satisfy someone else’s needs. We were making films because they were an expression of ourselves: what we were challenged by, what we wanted to change or redefine, or just dive into and explore (Julie Dash qtd. in Clark, n.p.)

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Still from Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash, Kino International, 1991. Image Source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/films/daughters-dust).

Sources:

Bambara, Toni Cade. Preface. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash, The New Press, 1992, pp. xi-xvi.

Clark, Ashley. “The LA Rebellion: when black filmmakers took on the world – and won.” The Guardian, 9 April 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/09/the-la-rebellion-when-black-film-makers-took-on-the-world-and-won.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Martin, Michael T. “‘I Do Exist’: From ‘Black Insurgent’ to Negotiating the Hollywood Divide – A Conversation with Julie Dash. ” Cinema Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2010, https://search-proquest-com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/docview/222358084?accountid=12378.

Reid, Mark A. Black Lenses, Black Voices: African American Film Now. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Rocchio, Vincent F. Reel Racism: Confronting Hollywood’s Construction of Afro-American Culture. Westview, 2000.

“The Story of the L.A. Rebellion.” UCLA Film & Television Archive, n.d., http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion.

 

© Lesley Butler, 2017 (lvb717 @ mun.ca)

reading/writing trans-historical hybrid relations with hélène cixous

Next weekend, I am presenting an experimental paper about mermaids and trans histories at the Small Island Cultures Conference in St. John’s, where island scholars from across the world will take part in a collaborative journey through island stories, ballads, narratives and histories.

My work with mermaids suddenly took off near the beginning of 2017 when I found an archival illustration of mermaids in St. John’s harbour. From the starting point of formlessness/otherness/wetness, I began to make interconnections between mermaids in NL history and my own subjectivity as a trans woman on a rural island. In the paper, I argue that the imagination, creation, and writing involved in theorizing relations between mermaids and trans women plays a key role in the durability to live my best life, on my own terms, as a young trans woman isolated from others like me by geography and history. Ultimately, I continue to wonder where trans (women’s) histories in Newfoundland begin. Similarly, in La (1976), as Hélène Cixous writes her way through the fog of ‘women’s history,’ she asks: “Où commence une femme?” (129).

There are no archived records of trans women’s lives in Newfoundland before 2015. This reality hits me over and over, so I imagine possible histories, making my own rips in time. I acknowledge that the word transgender is relatively new. As rhetorician K. J. Rawson notes (2015), psychiatrist John F. Olivia published the word ‘transgenderism’ in his book Sexual Hygiene and Pathology in 1965. Four years later in 1969, activist Virginia Prince first used the word “transgenderal,” her distinction from the category “transsexual,” to describe her authentic yet ambiguous form of womanhood in her own words. For Prince, the naming of herself as “transgenderal” constituted a form of agency and visibility in a world that made her identity and life invisible (Namaste 2000). I am not sure if Prince recognized this at the time, but scholars and trans individuals today know that gender identities are caught up in a complex web of experience, place and temporality (Aizura 2006; Hayward 2010).

In Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways out/Forays (1986), Cixous asks: “What is my place if I am a woman? I look for myself throughout the centuries and don’t see myself anywhere” (1986: 75). Until I stumbled upon the illustration of mermaids in St. John’s harbour, I grappled with a related question. Indeed, and thankfully, cisgender women’s histories in Newfoundland and Labrador have been recorded by scholars (Chaulk-Murray 1980; McGrath, Neis & Porter 1995). However, engaging with them while lacking a historical record of my own community has procured feelings of placelessness in me. And while some of these feelings still reside, recognizing trans-historical relations between a mermaid and myself – theorizing the mermaid as a maternal figure for trans women in Newfoundland – has encouraged me to find solace in she who has surrounded me for my entire life: the sea.

Much of Cixous’ writing interrogates the role of the mother, which is “figured in the slippage between mother (mère) and sea (mer)” (Sellers 1996: 42). In Sorties, she contends that “our seas are what we make them, fishy or not… and we ourselves are seas, sands, corals, seaweeds, beaches, tides, swimmers, children, waves… seas and mothers” (Cixous 1986: 88-9 [emphasis added]). As I see the maternal in the mermaid, holding on to her as a historical representation of my life and position within a specific geography, I perform within the intertextual nexus of Cixous’ mothers: If I am a subject and the mermaid an other, then I embody and act out “the subject’s going out into the other in order to come back to itself” (78 [italics original]).

‘Adding the Eyes & Tail,’ from ‘How to Draw a Mermaid’: http://www.drawingstep.com/how-to-draw-a-mermaid.html

At once, I am caught up in the “surreptitious slippage” (79) across histories and species, forming a bond through writing with an imagined (m)other. I find an interstitial place with her where we learn about each other’s bodies, where I touch the soft scales of her tail, developing a fishy subjectivity as I recognize our mutual hybridity. Writing our relationship through theory – exercising my imagination and yearning – illustrates a vernacular form of self-care. By inventing a history, I open up a hybrid future where the possibilities of trans womanhood are watery (Neimanis 2013) and written with ink that can be restored by the writer’s imagination. Cixous argues that “everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds” (1986: 72 [italics original, emphasis added]).

As I wrap up this paper over the next few days, I will continue to recognize the significance of undertaking the labour of historical imagination at this particular point in my life. As I co-construct a place of belonging with the mermaid, as I read history and write a fishy future into being, as I live materially within this gap between sexes and metaphorically across species, I peer back over time and place to envision how those women like me – queens, gurls, TGs, transgenderals, others – found ways to make sense of the space between trans and woman. I know that the more I write, the more I understand it, and the more I am changed. I read this in Cixous:  “writing is the passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the other in me – the other that I am and am not, that I don’t know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live – that tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me, who?” (85-6 [emphasis added]).

I remain open to the possibility of the mermaid from the illustration doing the same traveling between self and other. I cannot be certain that the image was imagined. I have to believe that she is out there, looking for someone similar through an opening in time. Cixous writes: “Through the same opening that is her danger, she comes out of herself to go to the other, a traveler in unexplored places; she does not refuse, she approaches, not to do away with the space between, but to see it, to experience what she is not, what she is, what she can be” (86 [emphasis added]). And yet, as much as writing makes me happy, I cannot forget that while the sea brings the mermaid to me, it also takes her away – forcing her to find me, and me to find her on my own, at times when I am a fish out of water.

Will this history repeat itself?

Will I dream of an/other?

References

Aizura, Aren. 2006. “Of Borders and Homes: The Imaginary Community of (trans)sexual Citizenship,” In Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 7 (2): 289-318.

Chaulk-Murray, Hilda. 1980. More Than 50%: A Woman’s Life in a Newfoundland Outport, 1900–1950. St. John’s, NL: Flanker Press.

Cixous, Hélène. 1976. La. Paris: Gillamard.

Cixous, Hélène & Catherine Clement. 1986. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways out/Forays,” In The Newly Born Woman trans. Betsy Wing, 63-132. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hayward, Eva. 2010. “Spider city sex,” In Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 20 (3): 225-51.

McGrath, Carmelita, Barbara Neis, & Marilyn Porter. 1995. Their Lives and Times: Women in Newfoundland and Labrador, A Collage. St. John’s, NL: Killick Press.

Namaste, Viviane. 2000. Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Neimanis, Astrida. 2013. “Feminist subjectivity, watered” In Feminist Review, 103: 23-31.

Rawson, K. J. “Debunking the origins behind the word ‘transgender”. The NEWS Minute. May 27, 2015 (accessed June 8, 2017). http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/debunking-origin-behind-word-transgender.

Sellers, Susan. 1996. “Creating a Feminine Subject,” In Hélène Cixous: Authorship, Autobiography and Love, 40-54. Cambridge: Polity Press.

© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017

From absences to senses

A few weeks ago I had a visit with my eighty-nine year old grandmother. An outing that has a 90% chance of biscuits and a 100% chance of tea. In recent years, she has taken a liking to looking at pictures on my iPhone – whenever I go to her apartment she will say excitedly, “Any new pictures on your iPad?” (iPad referring to any kind of smart phone – she often takes this as an opportunity to crack jokes about ‘eye-pads’). Most of the time I just have fairly generic pictures of landscapes, screenshots of funny images, or pictures of cats wandering around my backyard – nothing particularly interesting. But what my grandmother likes best are pictures of people – and unfortunately, a series of 5 or more minimally different pictures of the same cat outside my window leave much to be desired for my ‘audience’ (I guess the phrase “quality not quantity” would apply to me here).

On this particular day, my grandmother added a twist to our usual picture sharing regime. She hobbled across the room with her walker and handed me a rather small, faded, orange and yellow photo album, saying: “Today I have pictures for you to look at!”

I opened the cover and scanned the pictures inside – most of them black and white, some of them yellowed and wrinkled with age. Faces from long ago look out from the frame – I search for familiar features, gestures, anything to help me name my ancestors.

I look back towards my grandmother, who is now having a cup of tea with my father across the living room. I bring one of the pictures over to her and ask, “Is this you when you were a little girl?”

Before even looking at the picture, she says, “My dear, it can’t be me!”

My dad chimes in as well, “There aren’t any pictures of your grandmother as a kid – they just didn’t take any.”

Somewhat perplexed, I carried on perusing the photo album. But I could not help but think about our family’s ‘archives’: What happens when there are pieces missing? And in turn, what counts as ‘missing’?

This would be difficult to answer – and I can only speculate at this point. But this blog series has taken up similar questions of photographic representation and absence in archives. What role does privilege play in the photographic? What about power in the archives? How do we navigate our contemporary understandings of gender, race, and class when we approach historical documents?

In Woman, Native, Other (1989), Trinh T. Minh-ha opens up and challenges our standard notion of archives. She claims: “The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women” (121).

We tend to privilege the tangible, the material, as our source for History and ‘truth.’ But if we look further, there is so much more we can learn. What histories can we tell if we look beyond the written word, beyond the preserved photograph?

The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women. Patiently transmitted from mouth to ear, body to body, hand to hand. In the process of storytelling, speaking and listening refer to realities that do not involve just the imagination. The speech is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. It destroyed, brings into life, nurtures (Trinh 121).

Perhaps this is why I did not completely feel my grandmother’s absence from the photo album. While I do wonder why she was so blatantly left out of these family pictures (was it gender related? A class issue? Or something completely innocent? A broken camera maybe?), I can’t help but think that she is not entirely ‘missing’ from these ‘archives’. When I see pictures of other family members, I think about the stories my grandmother has told about them over the years. I hear her thick accent reverberating in my ears. When I see pictures of the rugged landscape of her childhood home, I smell the salt fish laid out to dry in the summertime and I feel the dewy ocean breeze on my skin. I imagine what life was like for my grandmother as in that small, Newfoundland fishing community in the 1920s, the 1930s, and beyond.

Perhaps, searching for history takes more than looking to the past. Sometimes it takes listening, feeling, smelling, tasting … opening up our senses to a world of archives, or better yet, opening up our archives to a world of senses.

Sources:

Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other. Indiana University, 1989.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

pondering photographs

A yummy day with a book delivery from Duke University Press. Seriously, by this point, I should have shares in the company; that’s how many books I buy from them. Today’s haul includes Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection, all of which are destined for this fall’s iteration of the graduate feminist theory seminar. But it also included Tina Campt’s Listening to Images, an extended meditation on the counterstories that images of black diasporic subjects, ostensibly meant for surveillance purposes – identification cards, passports, etc – might tell. As she observes in the introduction, “identification photos are not produced at the desire of their sitters. They are images required of or imposed upon them by empire, science, or the state” (5). And because of the rigid rules that have often governed their production, such photos have rarely been studied in great detail. But by listening closely to them, different stories might emerge, stories that challenge the logics by which they were originally created.

In her book, Campt gets at the heart of my own archival discomforts in this project: how do I work with material designed expressly to dehumanize? And how can I read that material differently? But it also gets at another element of this project: the visual archives that remain of colonial lives and experiences. The online archives in the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio, for example, include many photos of the so-called Coolie Depot where all incoming indentured labourers were brought to be processed. The Flickr stream of the Surinaams Museum, meanwhile, offers photographs of plantation life. But most of these photos were taken not to support those who toiled on the plantations, or those who were brought – often under extreme duress – to Suriname, but rather, to document the activities of a colonial system. How, then, to read them differently?

I’ve written previously about ethnographic refusal, and Campt, too, draws on the notion of refusal. For Tuck and Wang, refusal is about an approach to research; it’s about methodology. For Campt, however, refusal lies in the photographed subjects themselves: what are they doing – in the way they sit for the camera, in the way they dress, in the very fact that they’ve had their photos taken – to resist the narratives that have been carved out for them.

It was just over ten years ago that I found a stack of old black and white photos in a used bookstore in London, Ontario. All neatly packaged in clear cellophane wrapping,, they were gathered together under a single heading: “Instant ancestors.” I was with my mom at the time. We poked through them, holding up particularly intriguing photos, and had a good laugh. But as I think back to this collection, it strikes me that the ‘family photo’ itself as a particular series of conventions attached to it, and it is these conventions that allow us to find the humour in the photos. These conventions made it possible for us to laugh.

But these photos were out of context. Completely divorced from their ‘real’ families, their stories are much more opaque. How can we read them? And what stories might they tell?

Photographs appear in the most random of places. As a first year university student in Victoria a few decades ago, I found a photograph of a toddler with round cheeks in the middle of a book that hadn’t been taken out in twenty years. More recently, I found another, in an interlibrary loan from the University of Toronto. They’d functioned as bookmarks, I imagine, and then the borrower had come up against a due date, stuffed the books into a bag, and completely forgotten about the photos.

Like the London photos and the discarded passport photos Campt analyzed, these photos were accidents, bits of stories that somehow got away, that ended up in completely different contexts.

Instant ancestors, indeed.

[and yes: p.s., I purposely chose not to include photos.]

References

Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Duke UP, 2017.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.