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Tuesday 12 May
Bruce Jenner & the Soul of a Woman

Filed under queers + TV

4-24-2015-9-35-46-pmN & I finally caught the Bruce Jenner interview everyone tweeted about a couple weeks ago. It was not hard-hitting. At one point early on, Diane Sawyer asked him point blank, “Are you a woman?” Jenner said he was, “for all intents and purposes.” He said that despite the male body he’s lived in for 60+ years, he has the “heart and soul” of a woman.

Here was the point for Sawyer to ask the question I ask more than any other, especially of students and people I’m interviewing: What does that mean?”

Instead, they cut to archival footage of his Olympic victory.

I don’t imagine Jenner—or even Sawyer for that matter, given her confusion about Jenner’s situation—has read Judith Butler, so it’s not like I wanted them to start talking about gender as a performance. But this is what gender is, and Jenner is beginning to perform “female” with his hair and skin and nails and jewelry and blouses. We all do it. I’m “male” because I buy certain clothes. I wear my hair a certain way. I ask people to use male pronouns when referring to me.

What does it mean for Jenner, then, that he has the soul of a woman?[1] What are the traits in there that distinguish it from the soul of a man? How does his soul—his genuine, unperformed self—differ from mine? Any answer I might come up with for him brings us back into the realm of lockstep gender traditions. Is his soul passive? Is it nurturing? Is it social? What does that mean?

There’s more to say here in a longer post about the genderqueer, essentialism and legislation, or desire and public perception, but my point here is that Sawyer missed an opportunity at bringing notions of gender fluidity to light.[2] Also: a soul is not a performative space.

Unless, of course, you’re a reality TV star.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “I’m me,” he said in the interview. “My brain is much more female than it is male. That’s what my soul is. Bruce lives a lie. She [how he referred to his post-transition self] is not a lie.”
  2. Not that this was the aim of the interview. The teasing throughout about what a post-trans Jenner would look like, and what name he’ll go by—neither of which data were actually revealed—showed us that what we spent two hours watching was a long trailer for his forthcoming reality show on the subject.

3 comments  ::  Discuss  ::  2015-05-12  ::  dave

Wednesday 29 April
On Growing Up

Filed under Endorsements

When I was younger and saw stuff like this I’d leap out of my seat to point out what was false and corny about it. Now when I look at stuff like this I think, Good for them for having made something new without dredging up something old and laughing at it.

Like: can’t you just see a comedian-filled shot-for-shot remake of this going viral, tiredly?

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-04-29  ::  dave

Monday 27 April
Very Good Paragraphs – Charlie Hebdo Protest Edition

Filed under Very Good Paragraphs

From Justin E.H. Smith’s “The Joke”, an essay from the April 2015 Harper’s:

It is exceedingly difficult these days to call attention to the dull-minded policing by academics and online activists without being ridiculed in return as a frightened, ignorant old man who bemoans “political correctness.” We do not wish to be assimilated to those old duffers who wear Hawaiian shirts and do not understand why we can no longer call a dame a dame, and so we avoid worrying in public about the phenomenon. We stop ourselves even when we find that our peers have begun half-rationalizing the assassination of cartoonists on the basis of a glancing judgment that their drawings were racist, a judgment that rests only on the overt content of the images, generally without any translation of the French captions, without any consideration of context or pragmatics, and without any concern for the relationship of any individual cartoon to its creator’s body of work. In this age of visual illiteracy, of perfect tone-deafness to satire, the murders get cast as a blow not against freedom of expression, against subtlety, nuance, and laughter, but against racism. So, the thinking goes, adieu.

The essay’s opening, of which this graf is a part, ends with a comment about “the false presumption that humor is but one of the minor protectorates of freedom, when in fact humor is freedom itself, or at least freedom’s highest expression.”

This, for the record, is precisely the problem I had with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Despite her continual uses of humor, she argues in the book that there are some topics that are too serious to be joked about, without ever considering that their utter seriousness is what obliges us to make jokes. This seems to be the faulty line of thinking behind those protesting the PEN Awards. The second we decide something is out of bounds for humor, we are in its thrall.

Of course, I’m not the first person to make this argument. Subscribers to Harper’s (which means all of you, right?) can read the whole piece here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-04-27  ::  dave

Saturday 28 February
Continuations in the Search for an Authentic Self

Filed under Announcements

The other night my friend Jim Gavin came to talk to my students about his book—the very funny and moving Middle Men I quoted from in the last post. On our way from my office to the classroom, I had to piss. This is what I said to him, out loud: “I have to piss.” I went into the men’s room and urinated.

Then, last night, Neal and I were talking in bed before falling asleep, and during the conversation I had to use the restroom. This is what I said to him, out loud, in our bedroom: “I have to use the restroom.” I went into our bathroom and urinated.

I’ve been stuck all day on the question of which guy is the one I’m supposed to trust. Who was posing, and why? And Jesus: what the hell am I supposed to do if they both were?

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2015-02-28  ::  dave

Monday 23 February
Very Good Paragraphs – Friend Edition

Filed under Comedy + Very Good Paragraphs

This one’s from Jim Gavin’s incredible story “Elephant Doors” in his debut collection, Middle Men. I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that continually run the border between funny and sad. “Elephant Doors” is about a PA on a Jeopardy-like quiz show who also does standup open mics around LA. If there’s ever been a story written for me, it’s this one. Here’s the protagonist, Adam, after bombing at a mic:

Driving home, he couldn’t see the city. he could only see himself, from the perspective of the audience, witnessing his every weak-minded pause, his every false gesture. He had been putting himself through this for almost two years and he had nothing to show for it. No agent, no booked gigs, nothing. He thought of all the people who had been regulars at El Goof when he first started going, how he would suddenly notice, after a few weeks, that they were no longer there. At some point they had vanished, melting back into the general population. He felt sorry for these people, especially the ones who actually had talent, but after a bad night onstage he often wondered if there wasn’t something deeply satisfying in their decisions. At times he craved the sweet tantalizing oblivion of giving up. His favorite word in the English language was “stick-to-it-iveness,” but the longer he hung around, the more he felt the enormity of his delusion. A voice in his head kept taunting him with the old gambling adage—if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s you—which seemed like an intensely American piece of wisdom. He always figured that being aware of his own suckerhood would somehow redeem him from it, but now he wasn’t so sure. He was waiting for something to click. In books and interviews all of his comic heroes had described a moment onstage when, after stumbling for may years, they suddenly, and oftentimes inadvertently, became themselves. Now and then he touched the contours of his own personality, the one that seemed to entertain his family and friends, but most of the time he felt totally disembodied. The words coming out of his mouth seemed like they could’ve been coming out of anyone’s mouth. He was desperate to become who he was, to not care what others were thinking, to dissolve the world around him. He decided that this elusive state of being demanded either total humility or total narcissism. Right now Adam existed in a no-man’s-land between the two.

I did standup just once (or thrice in one week at one venue) and I hated it, and though I subsequently wtote about what I felt and went through, it didn’t come near as accurate and moving as this bit. But here’s the thing: this paragraph gets at not only why I was bad at doing standup, it gets at why I’m bad at doing life. Why we all are, maybe.

Jim’s coming to talk to my students Wednesday about the uses of humor in writing. At this point I’m just bragging. One last thing I’ll say is that there are so many places in this paragraph where a lesser writer would end and let the sentence echo in the whitespace between this graf and the next one. This one sprawls in ways that totally pay off.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-02-23  ::  dave

Tuesday 17 February
Really Bad Ultimate Lines

Filed under NF

The other night I was listening to some journeyman reporter eulogize a dead NCAA coach on NPR. Here was his last line:

We talk about a gentleman and a scholar, well he was a gentleman and a coach.

This is such garbage writing, but it looks and sounds so good doesn’t it? Audiences get such comfort and delight from parallel structures. It’s why callbacks in standup sets can get big laughs despite not being great jokes on their own.

This sentence doesn’t say a single thing other than “This coach was whatever a gentleman is.” But it has the whiff of profundity. All it takes is speaking a cliche, and then “correcting” or “specifying” that cliche by altering one word.

It’s my job in a sense to look for this stuff and I’m amazed at how often I find it. Or no: I don’t find it.

It finds me.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-02-17  ::  dave

Monday 19 January
When You Look Up X in the Dictionary, There’s a Picture of You

Filed under Grammar/Usage Nerdery

This used to be a pretty good burn, although tempered by the fact that not every dictionary has pictures, and so there’s always been a bit of the unreal and, thus, the dismissible.

When you look up basic bitch on Wikipedia there’s a picture of Ugg Boots.

That’s, actually, a fact (for now). And so it’s like yet another thing Wikipedia’s taken over is the improvement of our comparison burns. If you could time it right, how great would it be to upload a picture of the basic bitch in your life, and then prompt him or her to look it up?

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-01-19  ::  dave

Thursday 15 January
Very Good Paragraphs, 2015 Memorization Edition

Filed under Books + Very Good Paragraphs

Last year I memorized some paragraphs that had for years meant a lot to me as a writer and also as a person. I thought I’d stick with this practice and find something to memorize this year. Glad I found it early in Vol 2 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I liked the first volume better, but this is worth your (surprisingly short, given the 600-page length) time.

Why read it? What’s it about? What’s with that title? Well, from p. 66 of the FSG paperback:

I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a rule in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.

You don’t have to believe me, but that paragraph is exactly the same number of words as the Didion passage I memorized last year: 339.

When I talk about this book I feel like my 20something self talking about Infinite Jest. Also, I might stop marking comma splices on my students’ manuscripts. Why, when the literary sensation of the decade is happily full of them?

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-01-15  ::  dave

Tuesday 13 January
Alan Turing Was Gay

Filed under Reviews

alan-turing-centenary-justiceI liked The Imitation Game. I’m wasn’t going to alert you to the spoiler of his being gay because I don’t think it should be a spoiler. And hell, I didn’t see any trailers for the movie so maybe it wasn’t, but there was some coyness early in the script about Turing’s secret, and my parents had never before this Oscar season heard of Alan Turing, so I’m glad for the movie for letting everyone know that one of the most important geniuses and war heroes of the 20th century was—to let history spoil the film’s end—a gay man whose government forced him to take hormone treatments that destroyed his mind and body so much it led him to end his own life at age 41.

Also, the movie is crafty in how it leads its characters to talk about what’s normal for human beings. Here’s the speech culled unverifiedly from IMDB. It’s the lead actress role talking to Turing after his mind has gone and he admires the normal life she’s been able to build since the war:

No one normal could have done that. Do you know, this morning… I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up on my work… a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. Now, if you wish you could have been normal… I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.

I read David Leavitt’s impressive biography of Alan Turing when it came out because I’d just come out, and I needed help. How am I supposed to be? One way we humans have answered that question is by looking to how some of us have been. The Imitation Game does everything every Hollywood biopic always does, and I’ve blathered before about my feelings on biopics. What made this one different, though, is how it presented this man’s achievements as possible not despite his being gay but because he was. And those are the kinds of heroes we need.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2015-01-13  ::  dave

Tuesday 30 December
Some Nascent Criticism on the Film Divergent

Filed under Reviews

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 9.53.42 PM

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-30  ::  dave

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