Sunday, 28 November 2010

Suicide, Slow Death and the View From the the Ivory Tower

Thanks to Jeron for flagging this rather interesting piece by Jasbir Puar. Puar is a Prof of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University in the US and this piece was pitched as a keynote lecture delivered at Rutgers. As you might expect from someone of Puar's standing, it makes a number of valid points but it's a little bit too pretentious for my taste.

Puar's racial privilege analysis has been previously stated and remains engaging but she does little to develop it here. Her attempt to offer a perspective on the recent US teen suicides is welcome but I'm not a fan of this overly dense style of writing/speaking and I'm not convinced by her "slow death" argument (or rather its application to the Clementi case) . All of the facts of the Clementi case remain unknown or uncertain - a point Puar neglects to mention. We will never truly know what was going on in Clementi's head (despite the trawl of Internet postings he made prior to his death) and this may have been as much about embarrassment - the social construction of the sexual act - as it was about 'sexuality', the outing of self as a sexual category.

If I were to indulge in this academic conjecture, this is more about public vs private constructions of sexual(ity). For example (and I was talking about this in a class this week), the celebration of the heterosexual pregnancy is to to avoid the sexual. At the heart of pregnancy is the penetrative sexual act - or in IVF cases - a man wanking into a jar. The 'dirty' act of sex is forgotten in place of the 'respectable' status of pregnancy. So too have homosexual legal advances been about forgetting sex - they are about 'rights' for an 'identity' and sex is removed from that discourse.

Thus, the exposure of a sexual act in this 'public' way via a webcam was to reveal the private sexual self (regardless of 'sexuality') and that may have been the trauma, as much as the revelation of a homosexual self. DIY porn in contrast is about producing a performance of self - the moving of a camera, the editing, the knowing look into a camera. It is an illusion of the private. Thus, with regard to Clementi, I think the "slow death" argument advanced by Puar is to get stuck in the wrong groove.

That said, this argument of "slow death" may have wider applicability - and may indeed be an appropriate analysis of other scenarios but we ought to look at each teen suicide as an individual tragedy and try to avoid seeking to homogenise them into one simple academic analysis.

More generally, a number of minor errors bug me in the Puar piece. We have 'Grinder' instead of 'Grindr'. We get FaceBook' instead of 'Facebook'. It feels like an academic aware of technology and what technology is supposed to be doing, but they are experiences being viewed from an ivory tower. When Puar mentions DIY porn, it is like an ancient anthropologist describing the savagery of a distant land. I may of course being horribly unfair - Puar may simply have lousy dictation software.

Check out the full piece here.

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