Monday, December 30, 2013

Dean MacCannell: The Ethics of Sightseeing

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While I was reading this book to me, someone (half-jokingly?) said to me, "themacinator, we've been out of school for a billion years." This is (partially, since she meant undergrad, not #onlineschool) true, and if I weren't such a dork, I would have put "The Ethics of Sightseeing" where it belonged: down. But I'm a dork, so I kept reading. If names like Lacan, Freud, Derrida, Butler, Foucault and (a new one for me) Erving Goffman make you want to erase your memories of liberal arts seminars, you don't need to read anymore. Just travel and go about your business, because MacCannell wants to make sure you will never step out of your house without thinking through the lens of someone or other. (Other, get it?)

This is a difficult book that is even more difficult to explain. MacCannell is a pioneer in the field of tourism studies (that exists) and is not particularly happy with the direction the field is going in. "The Ethics of Sightseeing" appears, to the rookie in the field, to lay out a new direction. A tourism scholar, John Urry, didn't like MacCannell's original work and argued (perhaps missing MacCannell's original point? Who can keep track of scholarly infighting?) that tourist travel is about freedom, and that the "tourist gaze" is what makes it so. (Don't say I didn't warn you about the college-y stuff.) MacCannell, explaining Urry, writes that "We can disrupt the order of things... Paris is familiar to me and Kansas remains foreign. Even if the global system of attractions is a fixed grid, it need not function to determine tourist priorities, tourist behavior, or tourist thought." But MacCannell isn't having this. It's too simple: Urry believes that tourists travel just to get out see something different, which just isn't enough for MacCannell, as it suggests that what's at home is "unpleasurable, flat, and dull." MacCannell agrees that some people might be bored and need to get away, but also thinks that some people have great lives and also like to travel (I can think of a couple). Second, it also posits the "boring ordinary" as the frame of reference for the tourist gaze. MacCannell again: "He also suggests the tourist extra-ordinary should not be so extreme as to make the tourists feel 'too much out of place.' This is not a high standard for tourist attractions. It makes sightseeing closer than it need be to television."

MacCannell posits a Lacan-based gaze, where the viewing subject is not so free after all: "the viewing subject is caught, manipulated, captured in the field of its own vision." It's a little depressing, but MacCannell takes it as a jumping off point. If one is aware of this gaze, one realizes that the object/other is as limited as the subject: we have a hard time seeing anything outside of our ego (or our guidebook's definition of the subject). Once we recognize this, we can resist the tourist representation with an awareness "second gaze:" one that is "capable of recognizing the misrecognition that defined the tourist gaze." Subjects are incomplete, objects are incomplete, there are layers of meaning, we'll never get it all.

I'm already thinking about sightseeing differently. MacCannell is clear from the beginning that he's talking about sightseeing specifically, not tourism as a whole, which is a useful, if murky distinction. There are a variety of reasons to do this, and he sums one up like this: "sightseeing involves the whole person, mind and body, being and existence. It is about the person's connection, or lack of connection, to nature, heritage, other human beings, and especially, their own psyches. It is the one activity that any tourist can enjoy, old and young, the fit and the infirm, women and men, from every nation and class. The other tourist activities may have their own distinctive qualities, but none are more totalizing than sightseeing." Basically, sightseeing is both an end- something people go out to do- and involved in all tourist activities. I might go out to sunbathe at the beach, but I can't avoid taking in the sights. MacCannell has other reasons for choosing sightseeing including sociological and ethnological, and one of these is that "it has the greatest potential to bestow insight upon general social and humanistic fields." This is where the ethics come in.

And this is where I'm left most confused: I just don't get what exactly, in MacCannell's mind, "ethics" is. I'm sure it's very clear to people who study things like Lacan and philosophy and sociology and are still in school (not #onlineschool). But it's not clear to the average reader, and "The Ethics of Sightseeing" is not prescriptive about how we can go about being ethical sightseers. It's dazzlingly complex and thought provoking, if you can stand it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Emma Forrest: Your Voice in My Head

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Emma Forrest has written the Book Of themacinator's Year. "Your Voice in My Head" is about Forrest's love affair with her therapist- and not in the gross, movie, overdone way of most of these stories: there is no actual inappropriate relationship between Forrest and her therapist. Rather, Forrest finds a therapist who is skilled in a way we all hope therapists will be; in helping their clients (us) heal. And then he dies. And Forrest, in a very human, not always in a straightforward line way, continues to heal, even though sometimes it seems to her and us that she won't. When he dies, Forrest finds out that she isn't special: the therapist had helped many others heal which relieves her of her guilt- she "wasted" her last phone session with him, being flippant and not talking about any issues and not knowing that he was dying. In so many ways, this is all of our worst nightmares: our therapist dies before we're ready (are we ever ready?) and then, to top it off, we aren't the only ones in his life! I mean, we must know that, we're paying for the privilege of an hour a week in his presence, but our egos protect us from this fact. Forrest, though, seems to get it: this man saved people, and all of these people, like her, are now alone. They depended on him, and are dealing with the first part: alone before their time, like spouses without their partner.

I could not put this book down. Forrest is a gripping writer. She falls into a passionate relationship with an actor who she refers to by a pseudonym and who I stubbornly refused to look up until after the book was over (even though, after looking him up, I had no idea who he was, which isn't surprising, since I don't know who Sean Connery is- and no, that's not him). She struggles through the aftermath of the relationship, because of course there's an aftermath, with the help of her mother and a new therapist and some medication and her voice in her head. "Time heals all wounds. And if it doesn't, you name them something other than wounds and agree to let them stay."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Jana Leo: Rape New York

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The Oakland Public Library recently joined Link+, a union catalog for libraries throughout California and Nevada. All of a sudden I have access to all of the books on my list, for free and just as quickly as if my local bookstore had them- after years of wishing and hoping and typing in titles over and over- I can read All The Things.

Enter "Rape New York." This book is near the top of my list, which means it's been on the list a very long time. I had no idea why I put it there or when or what it was about. When my boyfriend picked it up he read the back of the book and rolled his eyes: "I hate those books that don't tell you anything about the book." It's a series of blurbs, and I agree, I don't like those either, but he read off words like "crucial analysis, screed and feminist theory" and I knew "Rape New York" was on my list for some good reason. And it was.

"Rape New York" is 142 pages of impossible-to-put-down feminist theory/architecture/some-other kinds-of-theory-that-I-can't--explain genius. I literally wished that I could read slower so that I could absorb the words more thoroughly, something that I have never found myself wishing before. The book is so dense that I can't possibly summarize here, but it does bring up the point that the publisher was right to only include blurbs on the back: any 3 sentence back of the book summary would be an insult. Those of us who know how to read between the blurb lines and pick this up, will pick it up and hit the jackpot.

Leo moved to New York with her partner and they settled in Harlem because it was cheap- what they could afford. The building plays a crucial role in the assault she subsequently suffers: the front door doesn't lock and the grate on her window- an escape route- doesn't open properly. Her notion of "home" and what home means to her, and to women in general: "rape remains shrouded in secrecy. The sanctity of the home and the body, and the fear of the ultimate invasion of privacy, is perverted by society distancing itself from the victim. The crime occurred in your home, not mine. Shrouded in secrecy and silence, the victim is implicated as at fault." She goes on to discuss the complex connection between home and the homeless, or those whose "home" is prison. Many women are raped in their homes. This ideal of having a house, a home is fraught: people worry about losing their home where home is house as property, and the "home turns into a cage, a physical enclosure, from which they are unable to leave." They're trapped, financially, which strips the house of any home-ness at all. Prison has replaced the house for many, especially for black men. Leo traces the predatory development process through the "unsustainable price of property, and the celebration of wealth as the only social value." She is not glamorizing or vindicating her assailant but following important threads with the emotional and academic authority to do so. It's genius.

Read this book and try not to be blown away, I dare you.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Dan Baum: Gun Guys

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I get what Dan Baum was trying to do with "Gun Guys," and I admire him for it. I just wish he had been successful. Baum is a liberal and likes guns- he knows he's in a small club, or at least a small club that's willing to talk about it, so he embarks on a journey to get to know others who like guns. It's not quite clear: is he going on a year long journey? Is he on an ethnographic, anthropological survey or trying to prove/disprove a hypothesis? And what happened to all of the books and data and stats he says he read- the book is very short on real analysis.

Coincidentally, I finished this book the day before the anniversary of the Sandy Hook incident, which has been all over the media. Just as Baum's arguments for a middle ground were starting to sink in, I'm doing just what he wanted me to get over: emotionally reacting to the ubiquitous presence of guns. My personal filter bubble is bombarding me with alarming stats about guns- there are more guns in the US than there are people- and a tragic article from Mother Jones about the deaths of children since Sandy Hook.

Baum takes people like me who are unlikely to read a book by a conservative gun-toter on a journey through various gun things- the range, gun stores, gun sporting events, hunts, concealed carry classes etc. He humanizes gun carriers and encourages readers to get past knee-jerk responses like "all guns are bad" or "the second amendment says I can have whatever gun I want, whenever I want it." On the other hand, he also throws out statistics without citations that are don't jibe with what the folks in "my" circle usually say that make me go straight back to the knee-jerk side I'm on and demonizing the other. To wit, in a discussion of the last twenty years of crime statistics: "most kinds of gun accidents [emphasis in original] had also decreased." (p. 31) In a discussion of the uselessness of closing the "gunshow loophole," he poo-poos concerns about sales of guns at gunshows, writing that "Professors from the Universities of Maryland, Michigan and London studied crime from the vicinities of 3,400 gun shows- including those in loophole states- and found that the shows, loophole or no, had no effect on local homicide or suicide rates. Still, to those most worried about gun violence, letting people buy guns with no background check seemed crazy." (127-128) Well, this number may be absolutely true, but it ignores a very large truth: gun sales affect much more than the local homicide rates. Oakland, where there are no gun stores or gun shows, is one example of this, as is Mexico: guns bought at gun shows are thought to be major players in the crime rate in that country. I guess "those most worried about gun violence" shouldn't care if the guns play a part in homicide outside of their jurisdiction? People on both sides of the gun debate accuse the other of playing fast and loose with data, and unfortunately, I found Baum doing the same.

A glaring example of this came quite early in the book: I had never heard of something called "shall issue" permits. In 1987, Florida decided that any adult who wanted a permit to carry a gun would get one, unless there was a good reason to deny them. As Baum says, "state officials shall issue the permit and not apply their own discretion." (p. 30) Baum says that he originally thought this was crazy and would lead to more gun violence, but it didn't, so he reconsidered. "My sneering at Florida had been misplaced: Shall-issue may not have caused crime to drop," he writes, "but neither had it uncorked rivers of blood. And let's be honest- I found that a little thrilling. Because now I could get a concealed-carry permit of my own and start handling my gun every day without feeling as though I were contributing to a virulent social pathology." (p. 33) If this doesn't jump out as odd to you for a book published in 2013, don't worry, Trayvon Martin does merit a footnote on page 243. Baum, having switched to sneering at those of us who think guns DO contribute to virulent social pathology, uses Florida as an example of an exciting state- problematic for those who think that Zimmerman killed an unarmed kid, unleashing, well, rivers of blood. 

All of these criticisms aside, Baum's description of his life as a gun guy with a concealed weapon is educational for a gun hater like me. Apparently there are 5 cardinal rules of carrying a gun: 1. Treat all firearms as though they are loaded. 2. Never allow your muzzle to cross anything you are not willing to destroy and pay for. 3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you're ready to fire. 4. Be sure of your target and what is around and behind it. 5. Maintain control of your firearm. (p. 36) And Baum lives by these rules and is pretty convincing that other gun guys walking around with these guns follow these same rules. As he says,
I found that I wasn't so much in Condition Yellow as Condition Day-Glo yellow. Everything around me appeared brilliantly sharp, the colors extra rich, the contrasts shockingly stark. I could hear footsteps on the pavement two blocks away. As people around me went about their business, utterly relaxed, I experienced a weird amalgam of envy and pity. Their bliss seemed ignorant, almost irritatingly obtuse. There was an undeniable sheeplike quality quality to them as they licked their ice cream cones and swung their shopping bags. Utterly blithe and vulnerable, they looked like extras in the first reel of a disaster movie. And there I was, striding among them, uniquely capable of resisting whatever violence might be their portion. It surprised me that it made me feel rather noble. (p. 49).
In a way, this is reassuring: Baum truly is a noble guy and he is hyperaware every moment that he carries his gun. The guys he speaks with and writes about are also hyperaware and careful with their guns. But there's another side of this: if we have law enforcement with guns, do we need other people armed and being hyperaware, careful of every move and ready to defend themselves and others? Baum would argue that the police can't get anywhere in time, and he's right, but does that make carrying guns the answer? He truly wonders about his responsibility while carrying a gun, and mourns the loss of friends, wondering if they would have been saved if they also carried. I don't agree, but if Baum does his job with "Gun Guys," liberals should understand. I wish Baum had done his job- I might be able to see more grey. As it is, I still want all the guns in the ocean.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Emily Matchar: Homeward Bound


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When I took up gardening, I did it because I inherited (from the landlord) a beautiful garden, complete with pre-made raised beds and lovely native plants. Although I resisted the term "urban pioneer," it's true that I was very excited to eat my homegrown chard and kale and fussed over my tomatoes that first year like I imagine some people fuss over their children. I've tried my hand at an artistic endeavor or two, but know my limits: I'm not a crafter and I certainly don't even try to cook. In other words, I'm not into Emily Matchar's "New Domesticity" and if I am honest, I kind of scorn it. Put simply, new domesticity is the "re-embrace of home and hearth by those who have the means to reject these things." Though there are a lot of push and pull factors leading people (read: women) to this new domesticity, it's not always obvious why people are taking up knitting as their extracurricular when they used to be reading, writing, going back to school or playing sports. New Domesticity is an even bigger phenomena: it's not just people like me who garden like weekend warriors motorcycle, it's people dropping out of "normal" life to craft as a full time job, hoping their earnings on Etsy will be enough, moms who decide that attachment parenting is the way to go, and that working is incompatible with natural mom-ness, and that food is so unsafe that the only way to live is to grow your own. All of it.

This is kind of creepy to me, and Matchar does a decent job problematizing it. Betty Friedan and other second wave feminists worked hard to get women out of house and to demand that men do their share. Many of these new domestics are "reclaiming" feminism saying that the workforce is oppressive and that it's more natural for women to be in the home, with their kids. Some of these new homemakers blame feminism for forcing them into the awful, stifling position of needing to work and sending their kids to daycare. As Matchlar writes, "feminists certainly believed in women's rights to have careers and financial independence, but they did not, as many today suppose, invent the two-career family. The economy did that." New Domesticity doesn't really answer this problem: It's a nice thought that women can drop out/opt out of the workforce to raise kids because they're feminists, but it's a daily life that depends on privilege, especially in tough economic times. It relies on a financial situation of inherited or passed-down wealth or a partner with a large and stable enough income to support the wife and kids. And this privilege comes with a very backwards sense of dependence: If mom stays home because dad is earning the money, mom is once again dependent on dad, who has many more options than mom. The dad can leave (he's got the money), the dad can change jobs (he's got the skills and experience), the dad can opt out of taking care of the house and the kids (he's got the job as the legitimate excuse, and hey, didn't mom embrace homemaking as her life's work?).

There's another part of this "return to the home" bit that has a creepy underside which Matchar touches on but doesn't dig into a whole lot. It's a nice thought that by opting out and line drying our clothes and raising our own food we can save the environment, but it's a very simple and, honestly, not very effective form of activism. I'm certainly not going to argue that people shouldn't eat locally, drive less, buy Prius(es) or make their own bread- lots of Matchlar's subjects seem to be obsessed with making bread and canning things. But it's when they do this because they don't trust the government or the American food system and decide to opt out entirely that I start feeling a little bit like I've been transported to Idaho. As Matchar writes, "this intense focus on what control the individual can have on their food is a mark of today's DIY culture in general. Progressive food politics lauds individual action, having largely written off government regulatory agencies as hopelessly ineffectual, even corrupt." The government may be ineffective, and I'm also not going to argue that lobbyists are out of hand, but really, if all of the people who care opt out, where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave those (again we get back to privilege) who *can't opt out? Basically, eating out of that horrible, governmentally regulated food supply, which, to be honest, has given us some pretty awesome things, like chlorinated water and pasteurized milk. Before you think I'm just a total grinch, I'll give you another example. These same opt-outers are often the same people as the anti-vaccinaters, and maybe now you'll agree with themacinator in saying that yeah, opting out can be pretty selfish. Kids are dying because mom's don't trust the government- educated, smart moms don't believe that the government can/should/is doing a good job/has the right to regulate what goes into their kids' bodies. Individual activism can be a) shortsighted b) ineffective and c) dangerous. This DIY thing is going a little far, and it's all wrapped up together. I'd much rather that these back-to-the-home people banded together to fight the real systemic problems underlying our food supply, thus making the entire food system more healthy and equitable, so everyone could benefit from their beliefs. As much Michelle Obama's priorities are not my own, they're certainly not a feminist nightmare, and I believe that new homemaker-feminists have a lot to learn from her.

Matchar writes a lot about the new DIY parenting, and tries to explain it by breaking feminism into two: "liberal feminism" and "cultural feminism" (I think this is sort of a ridiculous dichotomy, but I'll let that stand for this purpose). "Liberal feminism," according to Matchar "suggests that most gender inequality is culturally based" while "cultural feminism is the idea that some gender inequality is actually just 'gender difference' and that we should honor women's (and men's) natural, inherent natures." I'm not exactly sure how this is feminism (and I don't think that Matchar thinks it is) but it is the way that people advocate for this return to the ideal of womanhood as mother and housekeeper. I find it disgusting and essentialist. It's not good for women, it's no good for men who may want to be dads, it's no good for queers- um, I guess all same sex couples have to pick a role, right?- it's no good for anyone who identifies as anything else- and it's totally retrograde about race. Once again we're back to idealizing that white, middle class housewife who is respectable and does respectable things and wouldn't want to do "unladylike" things like work, achieve, be competitive or otherwise do the things that most poor women have to do.

Which leads me to my final point: While Matchar is decent on class (she acknowledges that this return to the hearth is a primarily middle and upper middle class pastime, and then works hard to show examples of people who are struggling to make ends meet with one income), she completely whitewashes the issue. Although she doesn't ever explicitly mention race, I'm pretty sure that her subjects, or at least the vast majority of them, are white. Do you know a lot of nonwhite knitters, canners, return to homeschooling mothers? And really, is this an ideal that a lot of people of color you know aspire to? The ethic (or maybe aesthetic is a better word) that Matchar comes back to over and over is that of the 1950s, which, if I recall right, wasn't a particularly great time for women of color. Women of color are *still fighting for equality and might laugh at the idea of opting out or complaining about the freedom that their mothers fought for. The life that Betty Friedan et al said sucked wasn't the life of the woman of color in the 50s, and it certainly isn't the life of most women of color now. This discussion of race in this new (sub)culture is entirely missing from "Homeward Bound," making an otherwise insightful look at a slippery new phenomenon disappointing.