Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Here's a Black History Month Project

She's Gotta Have It, the TV show, came out on Netflix back in November. I watched it immediately because I've got an affinity for romantic-comedies. I was not disappointed. It's directed by Spike Lee, who produced a movie under the same title back in '86 that I haven't seen. The TV show, of which I'm one season in, moves around Nola Darling and her three (four?) separate lovers, her two best friends, her parents, her therapist, and more importantly her life as an artist and a black woman living in the brownstones of Brooklyn. Nola takes a cynical critique of the state of race relations and more specifically the black female form in America today. It's empowering and chilling and funny and really, really, really true.

Episode 2 is titled: #BootyFull (SELF ACCEPTANCE) and is the most compelling (in my humble opinion) to analyze through the lens of Black History Month. It opens with Nola Darling criss-cross applesauce in her bed, wherein she indulges in a short monologue: 

"The black female form. Wide-hiped and honey-dipped under the sun, and under the constant gaze of many. Many. I've always wanted to paint Shemekka, that special brand of Brooklyn brown. BK all day. Never apologize for the suck of her teeth, the snap of her neck, or how she moves her black female form through the world. Zero f***s given."

The episode then unveils a whole series of underlying issues that exist today with the perception/expectations of the black female form. Shemekka, Nola's best friend, poses for her, and post-painting she fusses at Nola for not painting her with a "little bigger" butt. Shemekka wanted herself to be portrayed with straight, long hair and a big butt. Nola agreed to the hair but hesitated with the butt because she was looking to make a statement about the realistic black female form. 

This opens a conversation about Shemekka (it's alluded that they previously had discussed it) undergoing a butt enhancement operation.  Shemekka explains in a mock of her mother's Jamaican accent: "I got no ass. Me come from yard, land of booty girl, and God come and take my damn Jamaican birthright." 

Nola retorts:"What about Nada?" 

And continues:"You know its hard enough for little black girls being told they're ugly and they're not pretty enough. What if Nadia sees you changing your body and starts to think somethings wrong with hers?" 

This is an interesting moment because it alludes to and singles out many moving parts within the modern experience of black women in America: 1) the hair, 2) the butt, 3) the heritage, 4) the obligations and desires for the next generation. All of which, I'd like to point out, I am by no means qualified to talk about or consider myself an expert of, and of which this show by no means fully represents. That being said, I gleaned these things from this episode: 

Black women today feel an unusual and unhealthy and completely unwelcome and unnecessary pressure to produce physical aspects that America has decided to deem okay and desirable: the big butt and the long straight hair. (Queue Nicki Minaj, Blac Chyna, the whole look of the Kardashians although they aren't black, etc.) It's a stereotype that exists that is becoming a hypersexualized expectation that should be called out and corrected. 

Also, within the black female community itself, there are toxic judgments made on one another. For Shemekka, an enhancement surgery would lead to more profits for the only job she can find: the nightclub. She can't dance the headlining shows because there is not a demand for her realistic black female form, and as the daughter of an immigrant, she is desperate. Is that wrong? Is it wrong even if she wanted to do it just for fun? The show points out that something as simple as an enhancement is such a charged and controversial thing in our culture, and that all the controversy is wholly misdirected. What really should matter is the fact that there aren't better opportunities for first-generation black females in America. Is that the real issue? Is there any research being conducted to see what the opportunities for impoverished black females in America really are, or if there are any?

And lastly, the desires for the next generation: for Nadia. Obviously, the show is arguing that there are clearly perceptions and expectations that need to change before children grow up and have to learn about the world we live in right now. The show's pleading that better things need to happen and they need to happen now. And I completely agree. 

10/10 would recommend that anyone and everyone watch the show. Take it with a grain of salt and cheers to the black female form! 


* Side note: a whole other blog could analyze the power of stylistic choice in the show: Nola is artsy fartsy with natural hair + minimal makeup + a bull nose ring. Shemekka has her long acrylic nails, weave, and eventually, she does get butt injections. Whats the power of how each character is presented? Also, what's the effect of Nola sleeping with three men and one woman all in one season, by choice? Juggling three men is a shocking phenomenon (or is it?) that goes against our modern social dynamic/ social construct. So what? How does that give her power? I don't know, but I think it's intriguing. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Woman: Wretched and Wayward?

Ammu, in The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, paints the state of women in Ayemenem, a town in Kerala, India, with a cynical and disapproving tone: "There was very little for a young girl to do in Ayemenem other than to wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework" (Roy 38). This underlying reference to the expectations of women subsists through the text, but the two main female characters, Ammu and her daughter Rahel, break every sexist norm conceivable.

When she turned 18, Ammu lacked the dowry needed to receive marriage proposals, and thus, spurred by the disdain and embarrassment of her parents, she grew more and more desperate for a marriage to legitimize her status in the community. She ended up marrying a man she hardly knew who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. She gave birth to twins, her husband attempted to pimp her out to his boss in an effort to cover his own faults, and so she left him and, to the contempt of her mother, returned home with her children. After this, the novel details an ambiguous encounter Ammu suffered through with the police in Ayemenem:

He stared at Ammu's breasts as he spoke. He said the police knew all they needed to know and that the Kottayam Police didn't take statements from veshyas or their illegitimate children. Ammu said she'd see about that. Inspector Thomas Mathew came around his desk and approached Ammu with his baton.
“If I were you,” he said, “I'd go home quietly.” Then he tapped her breasts with his baton. Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket. Pointing out the ones that he wanted packed and delivered. Inspector Thomas Mathew seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn't. (Roy 10)

This blatant disregard and disrespect of Ammu is indicative of an existing bias against single mothers, who the police officer shows his contempt for by calling Ammu “veshya” which translates roughly to “slut” or “whore.” This stripping of Ammu’s worth as a women, along with the excuse given that the police officer knew who he could and couldn’t “pick on” demonstrates the uncomfortable reality that Ammu has not met what society has expected of her: to be married to the father of her children. And, to go one step further, this scene demonstrates the mentality that because Ammu has not met expectations, she is therefore not worth respect, and thus can be “picked on.”

However, Ammu didn’t break under such harsh treatment. She kept a brave and adamant attitude, and raised Rahel with the same currents of cynicism and rebelliousness toward the sexist-norm that she had adopted in her own life. Rahel was an unruly child to the credit of Ammu, who raised her without “an obligatory husband looming on her horizon” (Roy 18). Under the influence of her seemingly wayward mother, and as a result of her complex connection with her twin brother Esthahappen, Rahel shocked her teachers and peers as a child: she was enrolled in several schools, and managed to get herself expelled three times for “deliberately colliding with her seniors” in an effort to see if boobs hurt (heavily frowned upon because “breasts were not acknowledged”), burning her Headmistress’s false-hair bun, and smoking. (Roy 17, 18).

It was, they [the teachers] whispered to each other, as though she didn’t know how to be a girl.
They weren’t far off the mark.
Oddly, neglect seemed to have resulted in an accidental release of the spirit. (Roy 18)

Interestingly, it’s almost as though Rahel doesn’t even recognize the expectations that she’s actively not meeting; she doesn’t know that there’s one particular way to be girl, so she hardly knows that she’s not doing it right in the eyes of her teachers. She doesn’t feel the pressure that her teachers are attempting to place on her, and thus, the “accidental release of the spirit.” Here the text sets the two ideas of not knowing how to be a girl and a release of the spirit next to each other, which creates the argument that social expectations in India, i.e. the husband looming on the horizon, suppress the spirit of women. This unsuppressed spirit, that Rahel flaunted, is strange for those around her: “The other students, particularly the boys, were intimidated by Rahel’s waywardness and almost fierce lack of ambition” (Roy 19). Another idea is set equal to the previous two: to have a free spirit, as a women, is to be wayward, to break the norm, the expectation.

The question that arises after this rebellion against the sexist-norm is recognized, is what next? Who else, if anyone, is there to back-up Ammu and Rahel? Well, unfortunately, no one.

The other female characters in the novel are not on board. Baby Kochamma, Ammu’s aunt, expresses a whole new fold of the discrimination against women like Ammu:

Baby Kochamma resented Ammu, because she saw her quarrelling with a fate that she, Baby Kochamma herself, felt she had graciously accepted. The fate of the wretched Man-less woman. …
She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter - according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all. (Roy 45)

Not only does Baby Kochamma reinforce that mentality that because Ammu has not met expectations, she is not worth respect, but she takes it further in saying that there is no place on earth where Ammu would belong. All because Ammu left a man who abused her. “The fate of the wretched Man-less woman” portrays, yet again, the sexist-norm that expected women to find a man to legitimize their status in the community.

Without a man, a woman become wretched. And without a man by her own choice, a woman becomes wretched and wayward. This is the standard that The God of Small Things exposes, and attempts to counteract through the stories of Rahel and Ammu.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

TOK Essay Attempt #2

"Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it."

Explore this claim with reference to history and one other area of knowledge.

To say that some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, it is first necessary to make the assumption that knowledge is a tool that can be wielded in favor of a set of motives: in this case, describing or transforming the world. To set up these two motives as independent from one another is problematic because knowledge, especially as it is used in the areas of history and natural sciences, is an ebb and flow of describing and transforming, not completely without one or the other.

another example of dominant narrative
In the area of history, knowledge is most easily understood as being used for descriptive purposes: history textbooks, for instance, seem to accomplish little more than the task of explaining events. However, history displays the most crucial loophole that is encountered when description and transformation are separated: bits and pieces of history can be aligned to create a narrative, a dominant narrative.

These dominant narratives tend to be overly romanticized or embellished rearrangements of facts, or complete falsehoods, in a way that is orchestrated to form or guide the perspective of the present audience.

A simple example of the creation of a dominant narrative is the story of the Founding Fathers: young Americans are taught that they were rugged, moral-driven revolutionaries who stood up against Great Britain, a power who mistreated and oppressed the colonies, and won freedom and liberty. This narrative, constructed to propagate patriotism in America, uses both the describing and transforming powers of knowledge. Not one or the other. This narrative is also problematic in that it ignores the uglier sides of America's Founding Fathers, for the motive of forming the perspective of young impressionable minds.

The numerous cases of dominant narratives created with the motive of describing and transforming discounts the idea that either motive can be clearly separated from the other. However, it could be argued that each area of knowledge has a different ratio of description to transformation. In the case of natural sciences, the purpose is more to describe and understand the world and universe than to transform it. However there are, yet again, both factors at play. When Heisenberg discovered and coined the Principle of Indeterminacy, the entire dialogue of quantum mechanics was transformed. Stating that it is impossible to calculate both the velocity and position of a particle at exactly the same time shifted quantum mechanics completely, and when a whole body of science is turned right side over, there are subtle implications. Annie Dillard argues in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that the Principle of Indeterminacy went as far as to ruin all of science: "Suddenly determinism goes, causality goes, and we are left with a universe full of what Eddington calls, 'mind-stuff'" (Dillard 233). Even an area of knowledge where simple, straight-forward, quantitative description is the one clear motive, there are transformative implications of everything discovered.

Take for example the earth-shattering discovery that the world is round, not flat. Inherently, to say the world is round is to describe it. However, the implications of said description are, or were, hefty, even transformational. This, the connection between describing and transforming implications, is the nature of knowledge. To describe, to say this is that and that is this, to put together a string of words in the effort of communicating an idea, is integral to knowledge. In its basest form, to describe is also to transform.

By painting the Founding Fathers in almost mythic proportions or discovering one new thing about electrons spinning around nuclei, knowledge is ever-growing in its ability to describe, and consequently, its subtle transformations to the world around us and how we perceive it.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Books - Latour Interpretation

The niche most of my books hold, materialistically speaking, is that of shelf jewelry. All they really are is folded, pressed, and inked trees bound with string and glue. Objectively, they seem almost insignificant. But they are also constantly alive. If you flip open your favorite book, you will see the characters are still doing the same exact thing in the same exact places.   

Books are created to convey and preserve information. The job of telling and retelling stories, and consequently the effort taken to have the stories committed to memory, is delegated to the book. This is very easy to understand. But what is more complex is the prescription, which is as Latour defines it: “the behavior imposed back onto the human by nonhuman delegates” (Latour 301).

In general, the easiest answer to “what behavior is imposed back onto a book reader?” is that now we (book readers) have to hold onto all these books. We have to turn the pages, read the words, and store the books once we are done.

For example, I have a shelf in my room for books. It is divided into eight squares, each deep enough for two rows of books. Four of these shelves are underneath my desk, so I put “non-important” books on them. In the top left corner of the top four shelves are all of the texts I have from IB; Kafka on the Shore, Battle Cry of Freedom, The Stranger, Biology for the IB Diploma, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and an unfinished copy of the The Lords of Discipline are all lined up very nicely.

Underneath this shelf is a shelf full of books I want to read but haven’t yet. Casual Vacancy, Once There Was a War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and many many others wait for me to read them. And this is where a stranger kind of prescription happens: when I am sitting at my desk doing homework, I look over these books and I feel a soft wave of identity crisis coming on.

In a huge way, books prescribe back on their readers an identity that they cannot part with. When I read The Lords of Discipline, I gleaned a little character in me named Will McLean who reacts to the events in my life the way Pat Conroy wrote him to: with serious and selfish consternation. After I read Siddhartha I was left with a miniature ferryman in me who only ever wants to sit by a river and listen to the voices of nature hum “Om.”  The books we read, or even simply hold onto, are an extension of our minds and hold with them a power to influence and change us.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Final Synthesis

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard explores her own relationship with God and nature, and the associations between the two. Dillard makes plenty of religious references throughout the text as a whole, exploring different facets of God. Among these are many intriguing references to Christian doctrine. Dillard begins the book with a via positiva outlook of God and creation, and eventually slides down into the via negativa - taking a harsher look at nature.
One of the largest themes found while reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was the meta-textual reference to Noah’s Ark.  In Chapter 9, Flood, the reader is introduced to the idea of a God of Wrath in Dillard’s volatile description of the high creek during a flood: “It smashes  under the bridge like a fist, but there is no end to its force; it hurtles down as far as I can see till it lurches round the bend, filling the valley, flattening, mashing, pushed, wider and faster, till it fills my brain” (Dillard 172). This is a fascinating description of the power of water, and in a symbolic way, the power of God.
In the Christian Bible, there are two versions of God: that of Forgiver, and that of Judger. The God of Love versus the God of Wrath. God is believed to be both, leaning more towards one over the other in different scenarios. Noah’s Ark and the Flood as accounted in the Bible would be a prime example of the God of Wrath: God decided to destroy the entire Earth and all of its inhabitants (besides two of every species loaded up on a boat built by his last faithful follower, Noah and his family) in an effort to rid the world of the nastiness it had become overrun with.
Dillards version of this flood is to recount watching the rising creek destroy and conquer.
In previous chapters Dillard does explore the God of Love: she starts Chapter two, Seeing, with a cute childhood story about hiding pennies along the sidewalk and drawing chalk arrows for strangers to follow to find the penny; “I was greatly excited, during all the arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe” (Dillard 16). She’s describing something very close to miracles and blessings in the Christian religion. She connects this story to make the claim that there are many things to be seen, and that there is a gift given to the seer, “regardless of merit,” through this simple process of actively seeing.
This is reminiscent of Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Dillard says, “The world is fairly studded and strewn with  pennies cast broadside from a generous hand” (Dillard 17). In my copy of the text, I underlined “generous hand” and wrote in the margin “God?” Her entire argument is so perfectly set up as a Jesus parable I couldn’t help but notice it.
Although I have only drawn parallels between the text and western Christianity, there are plenty of parts of the text that lend themselves to more Eastern connotations. Dillard is not solely teasing out the Christian God. The story of the pennies could easily be read into an example of the Tao, meditation, or could even be used for atheistic interpretations of the text. What I took away most from the text as a whole is the distinction between pretty nature and ugly nature, Wrath versus Love, and Dillard's blatant investigation into both sides.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Knowledge = Sense of Self?

“Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are.” To what extent is this true in the human sciences and one other area of knowledge?

Knowledge offers the knower the unique ability of self-evaluation with the tools given to them in the knowledge they have attained. In the statement “knowledge gives us a sense of who we are,” the pull for a binary opposite is heavy. More knowledge becomes viewed as the positive, and less knowledge viewed as the negative. However, knowledge is not the sole factor, or even the largest factor, that denotes a person’s perception of his or her inner self, but rather can be seen as one of many things working together to shape a person.

The statement “knowledge gives us a sense of who we are” sets itself up to be turned into the positive half of a social binary. From the phrase, it is easy to assume that knowledge equals the ability to understand oneself. Understanding oneself (“sense of who we are”) is a positive thing, and so inherently knowledge is seen as a good thing. From the structuralist point of view, meaning (“a sense of who we are”) is derived from creating opposites, or binaries. In a binary interpretation, anti-knowledge, or the opposite of knowledge, correlates with a negative (or decreasing) sense of who we are. And therefore a lack of knowledge is seen as a bad thing.

The danger of this binary is that it implies that UN-knowledgeable people will be UN-able to develop a sense of who they are. This is not necessarily true. There are many other factors that impact a person’s understanding of him or herself. In The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, Hoff speaks of the members of Western Academia: “Far from reflecting the Taoist ideal of wholeness and independence, this incomplete and unbalanced creature divides all kinds of abstract things into little categories and compartments, while remaining rather helpless and disorganized in his daily life” (Hoff 25). The words “incomplete and unbalanced” suggest a lack of identity with one’s self, or an absence of sense of one’s self. This directly contradicts the binary set up by the prompt. Hoff seems to suggest that the academicians have got it wrong: they are chasing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and in so doing lose the ability to have a whole life (“a sense of who we are.”)

On the note of knowledge and experience, Hoff writes later in the same chapter: “But sometimes the knowledge of the scholar is a bit hard to understand because it doesn’t seem to match up with our own experience of things. In other words, Knowledge and Experience do not necessarily speak the same language. But isn’t the knowledge that comes from experience more valuable than the knowledge that doesn’t? It seems fairly obvious to some of us that a lot of scholars need to go outside and sniff around - walk through the grass, talk to the animals” (Hoff 29). Knowledge does offer the knower the ability to improve or analyze their position in their world, and Hoff argues here that knowledge gained through experience is more beneficial than knowledge gained for the sake of knowledge. The thing lacking in the academicians knowledge is that he or she is not gleaning it from personal experience, and so therefore it doesn’t carry the same weight. The experience is the conduit that knowledge must use to shape a person’s sense of self. If knowledge does not have experience to assist it, it will not make an impact.

This discovery inhibits the binary created by the statement. Knowledge is not the sole factor, or even the largest factor that denotes our understanding of ourselves. Knowledge alone does not bring about a whole understanding of one’s self. This statement leaves a gap for a dangerous interpretation; it is not safe to simply say that knowledge equals a decent sense of who we are. The development of a person’s understanding of him or herself weighs heavily on many more things than knowledge; faith, emotion, and sociological factors all affect how we perceive ourselves.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What's up with Political Satire?

Just this morning I listened to one of Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History podcasts about "The Satire Paradox."

Malcolm Gladwell started with a story about Harry Enfield, a comedian and political satirist back in the 1990's, during the Margaret Thatcher administration in England. Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, another writer and comedian, created the character of "Loadsofmoney" to satirize the way Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had "unleashed American style capitalism on the UK." Thatcher was changing England, upending British socialism and creating an environment where characters like Loadsofmoney were the norm. Loadsofmoney was an obnoxious and ignorant character, constantly flashing his wads of money at everyone.

The interesting thing is that people on both sides of England's political spectrum reacted positively to the Loadsofmoney sketch. The people who supported Thatcher used Loadsofmoney as a reference to how England was progressing, and those who did not support Thatcher referred to Loadsofmoney with disdain, sighting him as an example of how Thatcher was corrupting England.

Gladwell asks Harry Enfield what impact he thought the sketch has, and his response was: "Generally it's just about questioning what's there because we're allowed to question what's there. But it doesn't ever change anyones mind." And this is where Gladwell introduces what he calls the "Loadsofmoney" problem: political satire makes no real difference. Social scientists have discovered that politically motivated comedy tends to actually reinforce people's prejudices and opinions. It doesn't change any minds, just entertains the audience.

Listening to the story of Loadsofmoney reminded me that I've seen this sort of satire in the recent election: in Alphacat's "Back to Back" political parody video Alphacat impersonates Barack Obama and, with the help of Drake's soundtrack, satirizes Trump. Phrases like "Back to back like Trump's divorces" and "Trumps the kind of dude who mocks the worlds poor. But is the world poor or your soul poor?" implies that Obama is not a fan of Trump.

Evidence to the power that political satire carries is that this video is more memorable to me than anything Obama might have really said on the topic.

The political scene has become this ambiguous environment, where politics is humorous and comedians use political situations as tools to get the audience to laugh. Those who create characters to satirize politicians understand the intellectual background and purpose of their creation, but we don't. We lack the same intellectual backing to understand exactly what is meant, and we interpret it with the influence of our own viewpoint. I see this in myself, there's a gap in between my knowledge of the political scene and my knowledge of the jokes about the political scene.

This raises the question if Malcolm Gladwell is right in saying that satire is not shaping or enhancing our political views, are we devolving into people who laugh off real issues? Is this sort of mass media communication system keeping us from seeing the intellectual stuff behind it all, the stuff that really matters?