The Abolition of Umbrellas: Cinema in the Age of Individualism (and After).July 2, 2015
COUNTER-INDOCTRINATION #2 The Play Of Opposites.August 15, 2015
By Bradley Tuck –
There is something strangely beautiful and genuinely empowering about the phrase “fuck off.” Of course, it depends who is saying it. It is not particularly empowering to be on the receiving end, but at least you know that the person uttering it is most likely making a prompt exit. They are gone and that is that. That is why the “fuck off” brigade are nearly always preferable to the “woe is me” brigade. The spirit of “fuck off” tends to avoid a kind of noxious psychic vampirism that lingers like a bad smell. The spirit of “fuck off” is swift, sharp and to the point and bypasses that annoying passive aggression that winds up stifling our everyday thoughts and actions. When someone says “fuck off” you know where you stand.
I learnt the power of this magical word as a shy, quiet and not particularly assertive student in my early twenties. I had just started wearing make up and dressing in a way that I felt reflected “who I was”, but I also wanted to meet and attract members of the opposite sex. I had met a young art student in a bar and my friend Lizzie tried her hand at a bit of matchmaking. She got us talking and we decided to meet and go for a drink. This “date”, however, didn’t go as planned. The art student appeared to be having a hard time and proceeded to take a barrel load of different drugs and take me from club to club. I found myself following her around partly out of worry of what would happen if I just left. Eventually we arrived at a club where some of her friends were meeting. This club was new to me and looked like an old hall that you might have had a school disco in, but it was instead the kind of dingy club that stayed open to the early hours in the morning. She introduced me to a big group of about 30 people and kept disappearing with a couple of people from this group.
Often being left alone in such a big group I felt a little out of my depth, I have never been a big group person, but the situation was worsened because whilst some of the people there seemed relatively friendly, other members were certainly not welcoming. Certain members of the group were getting worked up. There was someone in drag standing at the bar. This was no drag bar and even though it was Halloween night no-one appeared to be dressed slightly out of the ordinary. The person in drag was obviously drunk and falling around in such a way that he persistently flashed his knickers. This seemed to rile some members of this group and they started talking about beating him up. They got more flustered and started leaping around in a way that signalled their preparation for attack. They went out into one of the other rooms of the club. I don’t know what happened out there, whether there was a fight or not, but they re-entered with a sense of bravado. I sat there frozen. I wasn’t dressed in drag, but I was wearing make up and dressed in a way that didn’t seem to fit. I was worried that they would come after me next. My sense of unease was not out of place.
One of them honed in on me. He kept commenting on my make up and then made some remarks about how they beat the other guy up and how they could do the same to me. It was intimidating and threatening. I tried to ignore him and talk to other members of this group. I reasoned that as long as I was with this group no one would touch me. This technique appeared to work in at least one respect: I didn’t get beaten up. But the guy kept making threatening remarks. Finding no opportunity to make my escape, I stayed and stayed and stayed. Whatever I did, I didn’t want to be left alone. Time dragged on and on. It was now around 7am in the morning and I found myself at a member of this group’s house. My attempt to stay out of harms way had only seemed to amplify the situation, people had disappeared upstairs and I was now left in a room downstairs with the guy that has been harassing me all night and one other guy.
He started up again making comments about the way I looked and making aggressive suggestions of violence. By this point I had had enough. Before I had had chance to think something came out of my mouth. “Oh just fuck off” I declared. To my astonishment nothing happened, or more to the point something did happen: He shut up! He left me alone. I was able to get up, say my goodbyes and leave the building. “Fuck off” isn’t always the easiest word to say, but at least it tells your enemies where they stand.
This spirit of “Fuck off” is eloquently summed up by the transsexual punk icon Jayne County (then Wayne County) in her 1977 song “Fuck Off”. Close attention to the lyrics reveals this fearless “Fuck you” spirit.
If you don’t want to fuck me, baby, baby fuck off.
In essence it is an assertion of independence, it means “I am not dependent on you for my own validation.” This is what counter-culture from psychedelia to punk and beyond seems to get right. It tended not to rely on mainstream society for validation or approval and it didn’t tend to see itself merely as a pitiful victim caught in the tumult of other people’s bad thoughts. It strongly and assertively makes its stand. Rather than look to mainstream society for validation it created a counter-culture where it can push culture in a different direction.
Today’s social media would appear to share a lot in common with the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s. In many respects Frank Zappa’s 1968 song “Take your clothes off when you dance”, which mocks the flower power politics of the 60s could equally be an anthem for many of today’s internet warriors.
There will come a time when everybody
Who is lonely will be free…
To sing and dance and love.
There will come a time when every evil
That we know will be an evil…
That we can rise above.
Who cares if hair is long or short
Or sprayed or partly grayed…
We know that hair ain’t where it’s at.
There will come a time when you won’t
Even be ashamed if you are fat!
Isn’t this the spirit of today’s politics of acceptance par excellence?! Yet despite obvious overlaps between that era and now something seems different. 60’s and 70’s Counter-culture (whether the Beatles, Zappa, The Sex Pistols, Bowie or Jayne County) never seemed particularly concerned with acceptance. They didn’t demand acceptance, they dared you to accept them and this itself made them less dependent on the mainstream. They were free to create a counter-culture that could speak to individuals from diverse walks of life without freezing them into rigid identity camps. This spirit is illustrated by a speech made by Divine in one of the closing scenes of John Waters’ 1972 queer cinematic shockfest Pink Flamingos.
Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!
This isn’t a call for acceptance. This is a dare: Accept us or fuck off!
It is this spirit of “Fuck off” that appears to be lost in today’s digital activism. Everything seems to centre around acceptance: trans acceptance, fat acceptance, genderqueer acceptance, etc. The message would appear to be: Accept me! Accept me! Accept me! Before long that demand for acceptance seems to transform into a kind of counter-productive pity police that attempt to shame anybody who doesn’t accept them. Furthermore, the acceptance needs to be 100% on the terms of those demanding acceptance. Ironically this is less of a concern to the political right, who tend to shrug off accusations of bigotry with ease. They often don’t care. The main people likely to be targeted are often liberals, leftists, and people within the oppressed groups themselves that do not toe the line. There appears to be a persistent threat of being ostracised by a community that you should belong to simply for not putting the “right words” in the “right order.” An almost Stalinist paranoia tends to encircle this politics of acceptance such that even the slightest thought out of line seems to usher a wave of purges that turn, not outward against genuine bigotry and injustice, but inward. The paranoia winds up policing the very group that it claims to speak for. Queer theorist Jack Halberstem illustrates the problems of this new activism.
Much of the recent discourse of offence and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! [i]
The problem with this politics is that it is an all or nothing affair that tends to homogenise demographic groups, rather than acknowledging a certain amount of fluctuation, nuance and difference of opinion. The drive towards total acceptance seems to emphasise traumatisation and victimhood. Anything that stokes that sense of traumatisation seems to vindicate ones lack of acceptance and in a politics where not being accepted is the worst of all possible evils it causes us to turn on people, especially, it would seem, people who, on the whole, seem to share our general political ideals. What is produced is not something genuinely liberatory, but a strange cycle of Grief – Acceptance-Seeking – Grief. This tends to produce paranoia, hatred and censorship and serve genuine systems of oppression by producing the very divide and rule mechanisms and petty distractions that it should be critiquing. As Halberstem notes queer theory of the 90s and early 00s
asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship. [ii]
Today’s acceptance politics tends to have a finely disguised reactionary core. It tends to ignore the sources of social inequity and instead engage in emotive and personal vitriol. While its aggressive tones tend to get it labelled as somehow radical, if radicalism means going to the root of things and uprooting the problem at its core, it is not radical in the slightest. Just because someone shouts louder doesn’t mean the shouting is actually making a fundamental change. Here it is maybe worth making a comparison with a genuine gay militant. In 1977, Mario Mieli criticised gay marriage for being a crude reformism that incorporated the homosexual into the structures of capitalism rather than offering genuine sexual and economic liberation.
By far the greater part of homosexuals, even today, remain trapped in the illusion of political emancipation within the existing inhuman capitalist structures. Far from being surprising, this must be viewed as the product of thousands of years of habituation to the Norm (both ‘normal’ and normative), which induces homosexuals, the transgressors, to feel guilty. In the hope of integration, many gays indulge in the fantasy of having the father-system forgive sins that they have not in fact committed. But the sense of guilt is essentially functional to perpetuating the rule of capital, and liberalisation and tolerance themselves provide footholds for the guilt feeling of those who are content merely to be tolerated, the better to be exploited. A homosexual has to feel in a certain sense guilty, in order to put up with the anguish and anxiety of the ghetto, and to renounce any genuine freedom.[iii]
It is interesting to compare the reformist guilt that Mieli criticises with many of today’s so-called “radical” Social Justice Warriors. Both seem to look to the mainstream/system for validation. Both tend to build political campaigns that are more about being accepted by a particular kind of “father-system” rather than changing the socio-economic order. This is not to deny that there can be important changes within the current system that make life more bearable or expand the democratic ideal to groups previously excluded. In many respects the civil right movements of the 1960s or ACT UP in the 80s and 90s did this, but whilst these movements tended to push for change within this political system, they were not short-sighted or ignorant of the sources of inequality. In contrast, today’s “militants” tend to foster a crude politics of empowerment and acceptance which serves as a halo for many of today social and economic injustices. That is why what often passes as Social Justice Warriors is often better described as a kind of militant reformism, something closer to an appeal for charity and pity cloaked in the language of revolution.
One of the reasons for this counter-productive core of today’s activism is the techniques that they use. Many of these methods include shaming and intimidation. But shaming and intimidation are not persuasive. They make people shut up, but they don’t really change people’s minds. Instead of creating a society where certain oppressed groups are increasingly accepted, they tend to simply silence people and thus push the bigotry underground. What emerges is what Herbert Marcuse calls “repressive tolerance”, not genuine acceptance. If you want genuine acceptance you have to persuade people, get them on your side, and inspire them. The thought police will never be your liberators! This is what counter-culture, in contrast, seems to get right. Instead of trying to police your thoughts it tries to open your mind. The thought police will never open our minds. They want to close them down.
There is a further reason that this kind of activism tends to be reactionary. It tends to reinforce and homogenise certain demographic groups. This often winds up being inherently divisive, turning one oppressed group against another in a manner that could only really serve the ruling elite. Kenan Malik captures the core of this problem when he compares the 1985 riots in the Hansworth area of Birmingham (UK) to the 2005 riots in the neighbouring Lozells area. He notes that in 1985 “Blacks, Asians and Whites took to the streets in protest against poverty, unemployment and in particular, police harassment.”[iv] In contrast he notes how in 2005 “the fighting was not between youth and police but between Blacks and Asians.”[v] He asks “Why did two communities that had fought side by side in 1985 fight against each other 20 years later?”[vi] His answer is that certain democratic measures, in this case the creation of “nine so-called umbrella groups, organizations based on ethnicity and faith that were supposed to represent the needs of their particular communities while aiding policy development and resource allocation”[vii] turned out to be perfect mechanisms for fostering social division.
Imagine that you are a secular Bangladeshi living in a run-down area of Birmingham. You don’t think of yourself as a Muslim, you may not even think of yourself as Bangladeshi. But you want a new community centre in your area. It is difficult to get the council’s attention by insisting that your area is poor or disadvantaged. But if you were to say that the Muslim community is deprived or lacking, then council coffers suddenly open up, not because the council is particularly inclined to help Muslims but because being Muslim, unlike being ‘poor’ or ‘disadvantaged’, registers in the bureaucratic mind as an authentic identity. Over time, you come to see yourself in those terms, not just because those identities provide you with access to power, influence and resources, but also because those identities possess a social reality through receiving constant confirmation and affirmation. It is how you are seen; so it is how you come to see yourself. You come to fear and resent African Caribbean and Sikhs and the Irish, partly because they are competitors for that pot of council largesse and power, and partly because the rules of the game are that your identity has to be affirmed as distinctive and different from the identities of the groups. Being Muslim also means being not-Irish, not-Sikh and not-African Caribbean. [viii]
This is why we should be ever suspicious of identity politics. Whether we are talking about race, sexuality, gender and so on, to the extent that they fixate on identities while homogenising on the one hand and dividing on the other, they are inherently problematic. It is in this respect that I cannot completely agree with Mario Mieli in his critique of the New York Dolls. According to Mieli,
The New York Dolls, for instance, a group of young men who come (or came) on stage in full drag, are completely heterosexual, and yet at least in its intent, their show is not just a parody of homosexuality and transvestism, but rather a celebration. Heterosexual, too, are the great majority of their audience, and yet the success of these singers is rightly attributed to their undistinguished exhibition of a ‘complex-free’ homosexuality. Nor do their audiences worship them as something ridiculous, but precisely because they appear provocatively gay.[ix]
According to Mieli “Capital liberalises desire while channelling it into a consumerist outlet. Far from being genuinely liberated, homosexuality thus plays a key role in the totalitarian capitalist spectacle.”[x] In this understanding, capitalism creates an outlet for repressed desire through consumerism, but this is a consumerism, not genuine liberation. Thus the New York Dolls are a consumer co-option of genuine gay liberation tropes, not the revolution itself. He goes on to say,
The purpose of liberalisation, for the present system, is above all to prevent and block any genuine liberation. And the liberalisation of homosexuality, as I have already shown, is in the first place its transition into a saleable commodity, often via the medium of ‘artistic’ expression, in such gay ghetto industries as the cinema, publishing, clothing, i.e. the fashion industries. [xi]
For Meili, capitalism appropriates genuine gay liberation tropes without genuine emancipation. There an element of truth to this. Avant gardist traditions (from the surrealists to the situationists) tended to assume that anti-capitalism and their own avant garde attack on petit-bourgeois moralism went hand in hand. Petit bourgeois moralism was seen as being essential to the future of capitalism and yet late capitalism has proved itself to be self-revolutionising, often embracing the spirit of the avant garde and the perpetual search for the new. In this respect capitalist societies tend to offer us gay consumerism and counter-culture without genuine emancipation. In this respect, there is nothing inherently anti-capitalist about the New York Dolls and there is nothing to stop the artistic devises pioneered by musicians like Bowie, Lou Reed and the New York Dolls being used to quell, or distract us from political struggles and social change. Yet, we cannot neglect them, especially if we want to create a movement capable of garnering mass support. These artist knew how to inspire people.
Furthermore there is something that Mieli misses. Imagine if the New York Dolls were somehow perfect representatives of the LGBT community. Wouldn’t they lose something? Isn’t there something subversive in the fact that they don’t represent the LGBT community? If they did, they could easily be classified as “trans” or “gay” and neatly pigeon-holed. If this were the case they could easily be written of as “what gay and trans people do”. What I find subversive about such counter-culture is that it doesn’t just offer liberation for a particular identity. It offers liberation to us all. Alice Cooper can co-exist with Boy George, Robert Smith with Jayne County, Patti Smith with Jimi Hendrix, Grace Jones with Steve Strange, KISS with Klaus Nomi, The Slits with Genisis P-Orrage. If identity politics has a tendency to fix us back into rigid and oppressive categories, counter-culture, at its best, comes closest to breaking down all those categories and offering an idea of liberation for us all.
As a young university student in the early 2000s keen to explore my own sense of gender I was often drawn to the gay scene as a place where I could feel safe in doing this. Yet as someone largely attracted to women and someone who didn’t exactly appreciate the cheesy pop that tended to encircle such clubs, I also felt that I didn’t exactly fit within this scene. It was a scene that often had its own petty restrictive mind-sets and hierarchies. One inspiring moment came to me in a queer theory lecture where the lecturer said that “if you wanted to use examples from popular culture Graham Norton would be gay and Marilyn Manson would be queer.” This inspired me because being queer didn’t have to mean fitting into strict “gay” or “trans” categories, I was free to develop my own sense of self in my own personal direction, and counter-culture provided an important avenue for doing this. This is why I love counter-culture. Yes, it might not bring about a revolution, it may not abolish the exploitative structures of capitalist society and it may even feed its perpetuation by offering a safety valve or distraction, but it also offers a way to explore ideas and make statements in a fun and engaging way. It offers a way of addressing issues of social justice without overly essentialising or forcing people into rigid identities. In this respect counter-culture offers something of what Slavoj Žižek calls emancipatory violence.
And this is where the emancipatory violence applies: The only possibility for autonomy is uprooting, tearing one’s self out of the community’s pressure to conform. That’s why one of my heroes is Malcolm X. The “X” stands for uprooting. It didn’t drive him to search for his African roots. On the contrary, he saw it as a chance to attain a new universal freedom.[xii]
Universal freedom cannot be found by uncritically conforming to stereotypes and ascribing to identities that provide a shallow sense of belonging and shield us from the harshness, nuance and complication of the world. Developing a sense of autonomy, individuality and sense of self requires that we face up to the vulnerability we feel when we cannot simply hide behind a label or shield ourselves by ascribing to a clique. Such satiations may make us feel safe and protected, giving us a place in a confusing world, but it also renders us pawns in multiple struggles of power. That is why we should resist over-identifying with particular labels and instead take a critical attitude towards them. Scary as this can often be, it is essential for genuine freedom.
Harnessing this spirit I am drawn to make an emancipatory battlecry. I am X! I am not an Identity! And if you don’t like this you can FUCK OFF.
Text: Bradley Tuck
Model: Bradley Tuck
[iii] Mario Mieli, Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique. (London: Gay Men’s Press. 1977/1980) p.107-8
[iv] Kenan Malik, Multiculturalism and Its Discontent: Rethinking Diversity after 9/11 (London: Seagull Books. 2013) p.58
[vii] Malik, Multiculturalism and Its Discontent p.59
[viii] Malik, Multiculturalism and Its Discontent p.63-4
[ix] Mieli, Homosexuality and Liberation p.129
[xi] Mieli, Homosexuality and Liberation p.130