Sunday, February 20, 2005

Invisible Insane

I've started this post a few times and am having a hard time honing it. It's about Abu Ghraib. It's about what I think are the sources of torture and why I find myself writing a play where I'm a little too sympathetic to those who commit such atrocities. None of my answers seem complete and they all seem a little conjectural, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, my knowledge of people directly involved in the conflict on any and all sides is somewhat limited, so I have to make this up. My father says my imagination has always exceeded my experience anyway.

Having read a lot of articles about Abu Ghraib, the Human Rights Watch report on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and so forth, I'm confident that the White House just-this-side-of-explicitly endorsed torture and coercive tactics in general as a matter of principle. (Look at Gonzales, our beloved new Attorney General, said in 2002 that the war on terrorism "in my judgement renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners"; Justice Department attorneys wrote on torturing al-Qaeda suspects that "necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability." The Geneva Convention and the Convention Against Torture claim that no exceptional circumstances could possibly exist to violate their findings, but hey, we're the U.S., all this is fine with us. I believe that the above things were said and meant; I believe that the U.S. was more than willing to turn a blind eye, and would have done so indefinitely had the photos from Abu Ghraib not emerged, and will continue to do so with all other situations until and unless similar concrete and undeniable evidence--pictoral, because as Frank Rich has pointed out, the duration of scandal in the U.S. is dependent upon how many new visual images pertaining to it there can be--emerges. Literary or verbal documentation simply won't cut it.

What I don't believe is that each method of torture and coercive interrogation used at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or elsewhere was created and/or explicitly endorsed by anyone higher up than the Specialists or guards in question. I believe they came up with these things themselves. Which really isn't a big deal, but in our society of if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us (a philosophy that both liberals and conservatives do tend to ride), it gets complicated to talk about more than one distinct group doing something wrong.

A friend from a conservative family who is not a conservative herself said that her brother returned from Iraq to believe (after she dodged the subject with him for a long time) that Bush had indeed betrayed them. (He also didn't like Kerry, which is reasonable, and voted for a third party.) I imagine there are a decent number of soldiers who feel the same way--by no stretch all, and probably there are many people who feel betrayed who would not attribute said feeling of betrayal directly to Mr. Bush the Younger. That is the same as, or similar to, Vietnam, I think--the way that in the U.S. during Vietnam, anti-war sentiments became anti-soldier sentiments, and there are people who blame the difficulties of being a soldier in Vietnam on the decisions the U.S. government made and people who blame it on the lack of support coming from the American citizenry. Whichever one or ones we ourselves believe to be true, I imagine that a lot of soldiers feel betrayed, feel as though what they are going through is not seen by the American public, by the society to which they have, in the past, felt themselves bound. And if you feel such distance from and such dissonance with the creators and enforcers of the social mores to which you've been accustomed, it's not a wonder that you create a system that corresponds with your own emotional life. Which corresponds to the paraphrase my father's father used to do of "Out of sight, out of mind"--"invisible insane." The feeling that your presence has no effect on "your" society, on what is supposed to be significant to you, can make you lose contact with norms, and a lack of understanding of what connects you to others socially is, in my view, a substantive part of insanity. I think this actually applies to a lot of different situations, not just the military in Iraq.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this yet, but it does have something to do with the balance of globalization with individual cultures, with our resistance to the Geneva Convention being this simultaneous assertion of our have nothing to do with the rest of the world and our denial of our responsibility for any of our actions in it, and how that seems weirdly to work out on a much more microcosmic level like Abu Ghraib. Out of sight--not able to be kept in check, either (in the case of the soldiers) out of being ignored or (in the case of America) avoiding the efforts of the rest of the world to keep us in check, to have our inner workings remain under the radar--invisible. Out of mind--without conscience, in some ways, without participation in any collective thought or in the system you claim to adhere to, that's in both the cases of the Abu Ghraib soldiers and the U.S. itself--insane. But is sanity actually just a matter of adherence to, knowledge of, ability to adjust oneself to, social mores and the choices a society makes?

Monday, February 07, 2005

It's Authenticity, Stupid

There have been sooooo many conversations I can write about lately. They include, to remind myself in case I want to write about them later, biological and social determinism in gender difference, bad art and how it sweeps both the nation and individuals, and authenticity as an artist. Today, I'm goin' with the last. Spoilers would be RENT again, a performance piece that very few people have seen or read yet, and a little bit SCENT OF A WOMAN.

After purchasing a copy of it for Cassie, I reread Sarah Schulman's STAGESTRUCK, which I mentioned in some much earlier entry about RENT; Schulman's fundamental claim, beyond that the non-LA BOHEME plot of RENT was lifted from her novel, is that the "popular" view of the AIDS crisis which RENT put forth into the world glosses over the homosexual perspective and is therefore inauthentic/dishonest. At the same time, my close friend is in the latter development stages of a solo performance piece about the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, about which piece I've been talking with her quite frequently; she is a white woman and will be playing . . . well, I can count eleven characters off the top of my head, and there are probably more, and a whole lot of those characters are black and African. In addition, all my professions and fields of interest (teaching--particulalaly as a white teacher in mostly black schools; theater; anthropology) automatically bring up a lot of questions of authenticity, ideology and authority. So yeah, that done been on my mind.

Every time I read or think about Schulman, or bring her up with somebody else, I have an entirely different opinion. I'm on a search for her novels, all of which are out of print (time for a trip to Myopic Books in Wicker Park--see, I can do product placement on my blog, too), so I can see how much water I feel her claim to RENT holds, and I'm often really irritated by small aspects of her book (such as her inability to check small things like the spelling of the names of people to whom she devotes significant textual time--it seems to me really disrespectful of her subjects and of fact-checking in general, and makes me wonder a lot about her non-self-focused research abilities), but either way the question of the authenticity of perspective is a question I can lose myself in. There is no question that the first community to be seriously effected by the AIDS crisis in America, both in terms of death tolls and stigmatization, was the gay male community. (I feel for some reason like there was a lot less racial division in it then than there is now, but really I have no fucking clue, so can an older reader tell me, please?) It was a "gay cancer," it was something else to stigmatize homosexuality (with remarkable and disturbing success, as demonstrated by the fact that in *1999* I was at a protest where there were actually signs that read "Thank God for AIDS" and "AIDS Cures Fags"). However, the "popularized" version of the early-ish AIDS crisis, the way that people who were too young to understand what was really going on at the time, like myself, came to understand it, was through RENT. The protagonists of RENT, the central figures through whom we enter the story, are straight white males; while myriad secondary characters are black, Hispanic, gay, lesbian, drag queens, college professors, performance artists, lawyers for the indigent, bla bla bla etcetera, Schulman's claim, which I think holds some water, is that it's disingenuous to present the AIDS crisis that way, as if everyone was truly equal and bonded in the face of AIDS. But when I mentioned this to my mother, she pointed out the obvious, which I hadn't thought of and which also holds some water: why does it have to be that way? We must accept, as artists and as sophisticated audiences, that all art is completely subjective; why can't we simply say, the reason this musical approaches the AIDS crisis through the eyes of an HIV-negative straight white man is because the author was an HIV-negative straight white man and this was the most solid and honest way he knew of entering into the artistic dialogue?

Meta-question: are we capable of creating art, and by extension capable of understanding the world, from any perspective other than our own?

This goes back to the problematics both of HOTEL RWANDA, about which I posted earlier, and of my friend L.'s piece. The thing of L.'s piece, though, is that you can't help but know that it's a white woman's perspective. It's different from something a white American woman wrote that is supposed to be presented by black African people; if the sole performer is clearly white and American, and you know the piece was written by said performer, a lot of the limitations and sources of the perspective are on the table from the start. No audience, no matter how uneducated, accidentally ignorant, deliberately ignorant, bigoted, or stupid, is going to mistake this piece for the authentic perspective of someone native to Sierra Leone. Even if it's the first thing the audience has heard about Sierra Leone, and I count myself as one of those audience members, on some level the piece's limitations are on the table. I don't think that's quite the case for the ignorant audience member coming into RENT. Schulman says in the book that RENT "[portrays] straight people as the heroic center of the AIDS crisis," I think that's a little extreme, but even if it were true, can we say that if one happend to think straight people were the heroic center of the AIDS crisis, one shouldn't be allowed to create a work of art that implies that? Can we say that that piece of art would be bad if we didn't agree with that perspective? What about something like SCENT OF A WOMAN--a really well-made, well-acted movie with well-developed characters and a really offensively misogynistic moral universe? Do I think it's worse art because of that offensively misogynistic moral universe, or do I simply like it less, and what's the difference?

I mean, in the case of RENT, I also think it's not particularly good art and am a little offended by how far it has come in the world given that. D'apres Schulman, no piece of art--particularly of that quality, but any piece of art--could possibly have come that far in the public/mainstream eye if it had been written by a homosexual and had a homosexual as the central character, and she's right. Is that RENT's fault, or Larson's fault? He couldn't help being a white straight male. (To which a voice in my head, and probably in the head of many of my readers, sarcastically responds, "Oh, poor him.") Unquestionably it also sucks that there is so little art in the mainstream public eye from an authentic gay perspective, but is that RENT's fault, are they actually competing for the same cultural slot? Would I even dare to ask these questions if I were close to someone gay and HIV+?

And next question: did RENT actually *do* anything political? Did it raise awareness in the public eye of the AIDS crisis, or did it present an idealized version of it that made people think they didn't really have to do anything? And if the former, is it worth its being bad art to have it do that, does that excuse its quality? And does it make it easier for the mainstream, the majority of which *is* made up of straight white people, to digest the magnitude of the crisis if they have a protagonist like themselves through whom they can enter the story, and is there anything wrong with that?

It's been a question at the forefront of anthropology in recent years, too, since basically the discipline of anthropology was founded from a Eurocentric, or rather Eurosuperior, perspective. These cultures are not reflective enough to understand themselves, which implies a certain lower level of sophistication, therefore we have to understand them for them. Even when the more-often-studied cultures started to get a grip on what anthropology was and start looking at themselves, academic anthropologists claimed that perspective was inherently superior--basically, that if you're in a culture that's being studied, you can't see it from enough distance to understand it properly. Which has some resonance, on a smaller scale (people close to you totally understand things about you that you yourself cannot understand) as well as probably a larger, but it does make it clear that in a lot of cases authentic perspectives have been neglected. On the grounds that they're too biased, which by extension leads us to the fact that the Eurocentric, straight, male perspective has been treated as neutral. And it's obvious that it's not, and once you know it's not, it's as valid a perspective to look at things through as any. (Which is why I think there need to be Men's Studies department at universities that have Women's Studies--to answer "all studies are Men's Studies," which many proponents of Women's Studies do, really only perpetuates the use of the male perspective as neutral. Once you let a department acknowledge a man's perspective as just that, a perspective, you're going to get a lot further.) And yet, when you're putting forward your perspective, you need to think enough about your audience and how the piece will be received and the political resonances it will have to know that many to most people think the white perspective is neutral, like I said about HOTEL RWANDA. It's part of the responsibility, as far as I'm concerned, of being an artist; it's why I'm willing to say all art is political, because it does have that kind of resonance. While my objections to RENT are not nearly as extreme as Schulman's, I'm not sure Larson was looking closely enough at RENT's potential sociopolitical future. Then again, maybe he died before he understood how big it was going to get.

At some point we will have to ask ourselves why I have been so obsessed with RENT since I started this blog, and I think the answer lies simply in my fascination with the things political art does and doesn't do. Does RENT qualify as "political art" simply because it's about what was, and sort of continues to be though less so in this country, a really explosive political issue? What happens when people try to write about things they have not experienced? Some people make good art that way and other people don't, but it's generally better when you manage somehow in the piece of art--form or content, which as you know I think are inextricable--to make clear that your perspective is a perspective. There are about a million ways to do that, most of which, obviously, I have not thought of or acknowledged here, though I think my friend's is a big one. Next question: is it just that we're unable to *acknowledge* the perspective tells in things like RENT, because we're so used to considering that perspective not to be one?