Sunday, 21 June 2009

There are few undergraduates in the arts and humanities in the last twenty-five years or so who have not become interested in power and oppression. I was no different, and found myself very interested in questions of gender. I struggled with feminism; as a man I felt like an outsider, one who didn't really belong in the discussion in the first place. I know I wasn't the only man who felt like this, but I also know that to a large extent my feeling of exclusion was somewhat self-imposed; my lecturers certainly never made me feel like my contribution was unwelcome. So if you want to speak about power-relations, does a position of privilege undermine the extent to which you can say anything meaningful? Not an uncommon question, but I recently read Bob Connell's attempt to explain why he feels he can talk about gender theory, when he is a self-described "heterosexual man, married, middle-aged, with a tenured academic job in an affluent country". His five point argument is clear and it is important that it has been said. None of these points may come as a shock to any of us (especially twenty years or so after they were made), but it is nice to see them in writing, and to remember why heterosexual men can and should worry about gender theory:

(1) Even the benificiaries of an oppressive system can come to see its oppressiveness, especially the way it poisons areas of life they share.
(2) Heterosexual men are often committed in important ways to women - their wives and lovers, mothers and sisters, daughters and neices, co-workers - and may desire better lives for them. Especially they may see the point of creating more civilised and peaceable sexual arrangements for their children, even at the cost of their own priveleges.
(3) Heterosexual men are not all the same or all united, and many do suffer come injury from the present system. The oppression of gays, for instance, has a back-wash damaging to effeminate or unassertive heterosexuals.
(4)Change in gender relations is happening anyway, and on a lage scale. A good many heterosexual men recognize that they cannot cling to the past and want some new directions.
(5) Heterosexual me are not excluded from the basic human capacity to share experiences, feelings and hopes. This ability is often blunted, but the capacity for caring and identification is not necessarily killed. The question is what circumstances might call it out. Being a father often does; some political movements, notably the environmental and peace movements, seem to; sexual politics may do so too.
Connell, R.W. Gender and Power. Cambridge: Blackwell. 1987. p.xiii

Connell's final point seems almost apologetic, and his attitude does seem one of the 1980's. Later in the book he questions notions of innate capacity for violence or caring in men or women, yet hear he seems to make the assumption that such innate qualities are present (albeit through social production). His last point is an apology of sorts, reaching towards opportunities for men to escape their oppressive selves. Do we need special circumastances to 'call out' our capacity for caring and identification today?

Monday, 15 June 2009

A welcome review of the expenses scandal

I don't have a whole lot of comment to make about this article by Jonathan Raban in the LRB, except that I welcome his sensible overview of the expenses scandal in the UK. It certainly helped me to make sense of the storm and put it in perspective.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Fonts and Cultural Difference

I was recently in the US for a short trip, and had some time to wonder about my own sense of otherness here. I stayed on the East coast for a short while (three months) in the past so it shouldn't have seemed completely alien, and yet there were many brief moments when I realised just how different things look because of the way they are printed. And that is just it: looks. I don't consider myself to be very observant, visually speaking (I suppose how else might one mean it), but my own language jumped out at me wherever I saw it written in public. The voice of authority in the USA has a very different printed tone to that in the UK, and both are different to the written rules as you see them in Ireland. Apart from differences in formality (toilets are for WOMEN in the USA, but for LADIES in the UK), there is a consistent difference in the kinds of font used. It threw me every time. I had hoped to give some systematic examples of the kind of fonts I'm talking about, but found them very hard to track down online - I'll have to just hope some of you know what I mean. Traffic lights spring to mind, as do signs insisting on quiet in libraries and lecture theatres (the irony of a loud font demanding quiet never fails to amuse me). If you do come across any examples online please do link them in your comments below - and in future I will remember to bring my camera on holidays.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Things fall apart.

A friend of mine sent me this link recently, and I rather liked it. Here's the text of it below:

It's sad when people you know
become people you knew.

When you can walk right past
someone like they were never a
big part of your life. How you used
to be able to talk for hours and
how now, you can barely even
look at them.

Do check the link - the layout seems to add to the effect of the quote. It put me in mind of a particularly poignant moment in Henryson's Testament of Cresseid. Henryson 'finishes' Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. In Henryson's sequel, Criseyde is punished for her infidelity to Troilus (well, more properly, for blaspheming against Venus and Cupid), and a harsh punishment it is too. Awaking from a dream in which the gods pass judgement on her, she finds herself to be afflicted with leprosy. Henryson creates a poignant scene - the noble Troylus passes by a leper on the road, not recognising her as his former lover, Cresseid. Though he doesn't know her, an image of the Cresseid he knew flashes into his mind, and he shows the leper charity:

Than vpon him scho kest vp baith hir ene,
And with ane blenk it come into his thocht
That he sumtime hir face befoir had sene,
But scho was in sic plye he knew hir nocht;
Yit than hir luik into his mynd it brocht
The sweit visage and amorous blenking
Of fair Cresseid, sumtyme his awin darling.

Na wonder was, suppois in mynd that he
Tuik hir figure sa sone, and lo, now quhy:
The idole of ane thing in cace may be
Sa deip imprentit in the fantasy
That is deludies the wittis outwardly,
And sa appeiris in forme and lyke estait
Within the mynd as it was figurait...

For knichtlie pietie and memoriall
Of fair Cresseid, ane gyrdill can he tak,
Ane purs of gold, and mony gay iowall,
And in the skirt of Cresseid doun he swak;
Than raid away and not ane word [he] spak,
Pensiwe in hart, quhill he come to the toun,
And for greit cair oft syis almaist fell doun. (Testament of Cresseid, 498-525)

Cresseid herself later discovers who her generous benefactor was, and falls into great grief. She gives all she owns (including Troylus' gift) in testament to the 'lipper folk', and dies in sadness.

There are a few things about this passage that make it deeply human. Cresseid and Troylus' mutual misrecognition says something about the tragic mutability of love; not only are they no longer lovers, but they cannot even recognise one another. Each, in their own way, have been changed by the experience of love and loss. Cresseid's new invisibility as a leper is not surprising; the weak often become invisible, and Henryson makes much of the connection between female beauty, wealth and power. Her loss of beauty renders her unknowable. And Henryson's Aristotelian comment on the possibility that one can think what one sees is just an image is an interesting inversion of the common feeling that when one has lost a beloved, one sees them everywhere; in a face in every crowd. For Troylus and Cresseid, it is sad when people you know become people you knew, and sadder still that their experienced selves cannot even recognise each other.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Flights of Emotion

It has been far too long since my last post, so I'll start off slow. This recent article in the LRB is well worth a read for anyone interested in Wikipedia and its all-over-the-placeness (not a word, you might argue, but if you do I'll put an entry for it in Wikipedia).

In the same issue, I found a suprising reference to a particular experience of travel that I thought was a personal quirk, one that others didn't share and would think me a little crazy for having. I find travel, particularly travel by plane, an emotional experience. Sitting on a long flight by a window seat can bring me to tears - not good tears or bad tears, just tears. I couldn't tell you why; it is not an unpleasant experience, in fact it is a welcome release. Perhaps one feels cocooned in the long metal tube, flying through the air. Anne Enright mentions in this article that "a long-haul flight is a very emotional place: it is something to do with the air". I couldn't agree more.