hurrah for the “merry” month of May

I’m still holed up in a choo-choo train traversing Check Republic, travelling slowly to Grade Britain so I can Checkxit. In the midst of all the commotion of the Maute attack in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur and the president’s unlawful declaration of Martial Law in all of Mindanao, making the end-of-sem craziness even more difficult to slog through, I thought I’d post here before this month ends about something I’ve been working on: a paper on the politics of disposable life in Duterte’s Drug War.

This draft is a work-in-progress that is part of a broader research project on the discursive construction of inhumanity and the legitimation of killing in Duterte’s War on Drugs. Pending further study of textual and other evidence, the conceptual analysis presented in this paper should not be taken as sufficient to support the conclusions reached. In its current form, this paper was presented at the “Thinking Humanity at Its End” conference organized by the Center for Intercultural Philosophy, held on May 27, 2017 in Tandang Sora, Quezon City. Some parts of this paper were also presented at the 2017 Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Global Network Winter Camp on “Conflict and Justice: Precarious Bodies in Inter-Asia Societies” held in Hsinchu, Taiwan on January 16-20, which I was able to participate in with the support of the International Institute for Cultural Studies of National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan (more on this experience later, maybe — but I don’t know. I’ve been so busy these past several months that I’ve hardly had time and space to process, reflect on, and memorialize personal experiences; inevitably, I soon will forget them.)

Retropost: On Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

The initial draft of this essay was first posted as a Facebook status update on October 20, 2014.

The other day, I finished reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Phoenix, 2012), which I couldn’t help but pick up after watching the film version directed by David Fincher. Halfway through the novel, as Diary Amy detailed her losses as she went from New York Writer-Sophisticate to Midwest Small-Town Housewife, I thought, this work could be on my list of books-anyone-who-wants-to-be-with-me-for-the-long-haul-has-to-read—for Gone Girl exemplifies my fear of what New Yorker writer Elif Batuman calls the narrative of marriage as “abduction”: the creeping loss of autonomy and identity in the name of wifely and motherly duty, the essence of which is (as it is commonly conceived) sacrifice—of career, personal aspirations, time, money, body. In marriage, of course, both parties make sacrifices and compromise for a partnership to work, but it seems that the woman is still socially expected to give up more for her family, to put her family’s needs first, and always, before her own (space, me-time, ambitions, etc.). But then, I got to the horrifying end of the book and had to agree with Nick: Amy is one psycho bitch, and if I put this book on my list, guys would be running in the opposite direction from me, post-haste. As they often do to bitches.

“We’re all bitches in the end, aren’t we, Nick? Dumb bitch, psycho bitch,” Amy remarks. And I thought, sure. It’s the label most often given to any woman who doesn’t make others feel good about themselves, who doesn’t let men have their way.

A married friend who saw me reading the book said that she felt reluctant to read it because of its ambivalence toward misogyny—here we have a woman lying about having suffered the ordeals of stalking, verbal abuse, battery, rape, miscarriage, and even homicide by the men in her life to get what she wants. But more than Manichean judgments of the #TeamNick vs. #TeamAmy sort, what’s interesting to me is what pushes women like Amy to such extremes, what causes madness to bloom in women characters from Medea to Ophelia and Lady Macbeth to Bertha and Ms. Havisham to the Lisbon girls of Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, to Amy Elliott Dunne (and real-life examples like Woolf, Plath, and Sexton). Their madness is often attributed to devastating heartbreak—getting jilted, betrayed, thrown off for a prettier, younger woman by some man, or being romantically or sexually repressed. But madness is not just a matter of individual psychology, a moral failing, or some biological glitch—it blooms in a person who is so at odds with the society in which he or she lives.

Take Amy, for instance. She’s a young(ish), beautiful, intelligent, independent, charming, talented, and wealthy WASP lady. She is privileged in every way. She is the kind of woman who can make the most of feminism’s gains, because she is not oppressed for her race, class, sexuality, looks, ability… as her husband points out, men want her, women want to be her. The downside to having it all, though, is that she feels like she has to dazzle all the time, prove that all that privilege dripping off of her is not wasted, prove that she is worthy of admiration, not because she’s hot (though that’s part of it), but because she has advanced degrees in psychology from Ivy League schools, cooks French cuisine, speaks fluent Spanish, and can quote from classical literature and screwball comedies in the same breath.

I think a lot of women feel similar pressure, be it to a lesser degree. Feminism maintains that men and women are equal, that gender is a construct, sexuality fluid, the indicators of biological sex alterable—thus, there is no essential difference between men and women. If men can, women can, too—lift Olympic weights, run a company, drive a truck, build bridges, and so on—but for many self-proclaimed feminists, this creates a pressure to constantly maintain the persona of Strong Woman, because the failure to do so—to ask a guy’s help in changing a lightbulb or carrying groceries, to not fight for that deserved promotion at work, to stay with a philandering husband—is to invite criticisms of feminism itself (several times I’ve heard guys say that feminists shouldn’t be asking for their help in, like, fixing things or carrying stuff, because they [the women] say they’re strong, right? Can’t have it both ways). At the same time, Strong Woman has to deal with social pressure to find a nice man, get married, and raise a family, because if she fails to get a guy interested and committed, then there must be something wrong with her.

Unfortunately, not all men find Strong Woman desirable, because being with Strong Woman poses a challenge to their masculinity, which largely remains predicated on their ability to provide for, protect, and outdo women at providing and protecting. So what does a Strong Woman who wants romance do? Often, she pretends to be somebody she’s not, to make men feel that she needs them, to make men feel like men. Consider Mean Girls’ Cady Heron, a math nerd, deliberately flunking her math tests to get the hunky boy’s “help” and attention, or Amy Dunne, despite her disciplined and exacting nature, pretending to be Nick’s Cool Girl—a persona she characterizes as brilliant and laidback, who likes what her man likes and doesn’t ever complain or nag him to be anything other than what he is or do anything other than what he pleases, even when he’s already messing things up. The result? Snowballing disappointment and resentment for both (and high-octane madness fuel for Amy).

The irony is that the gains of feminism have created new quandaries for women who desire independence, self-actualization, and professional success alongside romance, partnership, and family, which are social institutions that, by and large, have yet to catch on to the idea that persons need not be boxed into femininity vs. masculinity and all the opposing/hierarchical characteristics and values attached to each, that marriage and motherhood need not be a woman’s ultimate achievement and sacrifice, that men also don’t have to be the stronger party all the time, and that just because you can theoretically have it all doesn’t mean you should.

At the heart of Gone Girl isn’t a man vs. woman issue, but a social-constructs(gender, the media, the capitalist-driven economy)-are-fucking-with-us issue. And resolving that issue, at least within oneself, is not a matter of simply taking Nick’s or Amy’s side, but of trying to understand how their heady romance turned murderous, how two people who make their living out of words could so disastrously fail to communicate, why Amy—smart, attractive, rich, accomplished, adored—staged her own murder, and afterwards “let herself go,” dyeing her blonde locks a mousy brown, living off soda pop and hotdogs in a crummy cabin at the edge of some woods in Nowheresville, playing mini-golf with trailer trash.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes in The New Inquiry about Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things:

… forms of dangerous self-harm are to riots in the streets what a white strike is to a factory occupation: women, precarious workers, young people and others for whom the lassitudes of modern life routinely produce acute distress and for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard, eat less, consume frantically; be thin and perfect and good, conform and comply, push yourself to the point of collapse. … We all followed the rules, sufferers seem to be saying—now look what you made us do.

… You want me to be a good girl? Fine, I’ll be a goddamn perfect girl. Fuck you, I’ll disappear, how’s that? …

What Laurie Penny calls for in this book is mutiny. Mutiny against the mythology of “falling apart elegantly,” … mutiny against the careful persona curation of social media, which so many women have mastered because we’re so used to being thought of as commodities. Mutiny for sex workers and men who are tired of the patriarchy too and for women who question the institutionalization of “love.”

Today’s “postfeminist” men and women need more empowering narratives about romance, relationships, marriage, and parenthood. As these institutions stand, as our notions of what it means to be a Good Husband and Father and a Good Wife and Mother are constructed and maintained, the fear that both institutions may lead to the “abduction” and effacement of the self remains potent.

Meaning and morality in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations

Or, why I sometimes felt like choking down tears while attending our classes on Wittgenstein. And no, that’s not hyperbole. Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language had emotional moment as well as intellectual fascination for me, and these past months, I’ve devoted headspace to trying to understand why that’s so.

As a lifelong reader, a professional editor, and an aspiring writer, I traffic in ideas and reel around the ceaseless currents of words. I worry about clarity and craft, about fantasy production and creative visualization, about  the value of empathy and “mere” self-expression in writing. I think about the significance of literature and other art forms through which we realize our humanity and interrogate society, and about how the anxiety of expression must sometimes fall to silence. Writing an essay—albeit far from an exhaustive one—on Wittgenstein’s conception of language in his Philosophical Investigations gave me the opportunity to think about just how important our words are, how they mean and what for.

Below is an excerpt from the essay, which may be read on Scribd in full.

“Meaning (making it and making sense of it) is performative as much as it is retrospective. For one can make sense of something only in the context of what came before it—prior moves in the language game, linguistic conventions, and the practices and traditions from which they came. It is a function of accumulated performances, of repeated and repeatedly accepted utterances. Thus meaning—like language, like cultures, like people—is ever-evolving, alive, and subject to change. Meaning is constructed in discourse, and discourse shaped by human agency, and it is in this possibility not only of meaningful expression, but of meaningful action, interaction, and intervention that the morality of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language lies.

“Underlying all of this is the necessity of investigating established modes of thought and speech in the attempt to understand and to be understood. Anyone who uses language is caught up in this constant attempt to communicate, to learn in practice, and to bear upon the world. The more one is exposed to instances of the various ways in which expressions are used, the more one is exposed to human relations, activities, cultures, places—the weave of life in which language is threaded—the more one refines one’s sensitivities and notions of nuance, and the better one creates and conveys meaning.

“In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent‘ (7). With such a stark statement he summarily dismissed the infinite richness of human life and expression, and invalidated judgments of aesthetics or morality, which, arguably, represent the highest aspirations of humanity. Soon afterward, he gave up the practice of philosophy. But with Philosophical Investigations he turned around and reclaimed the value of the actual and the everyday, exhorting us to take off our blinders in the pursuit of the ideal and open our eyes to ‘what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful’ (PI 129) there, henceforth changing the way we practice and conceive of philosophy.

“It is not a matter of complicating things, but of clarifying them.”