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It's difficult to do archaeology on your own former self, like studying an ancient settlement people have continually lived on and built over. I have some memories of the people I used to be, but they're partial, selective, and already in the context of the narratives that are explanatory to me now. Things that didn't matter to me, that contradicted me, that I didn't realize, are all elided. Without external landmarks with which to orient myself -- public records, intersubjective corroboration, things I wrote down at the time -- it would be close to impossible to check or complicate these memories, but even with those things available there is so much in my relationship to them I have to guess at, what I was unable to acknowledge or articulate at the time, or just forgot.

Read more... )
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Jo Walton, Among Others
...is fantastic, but what to say about it? It comes the closest of any book not Gaudy Night to being in the same genre as Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, with which, as long-time readers may recall, I am somewhat obsessed. Do you like explorations of wounded people learning unorthodox ways to thrive, or girls who read a lot coming of age and finding community, or people coping with the world after they've saved it? How about subtle and deniable magic? This is a book for people who respond to those things, though I wouldn't rule out others.

I posted about this xkcd on my facebook, but it feels more like a weblog entry so I'm going to reproduce it here. Seeing it again the other day I was struck by what a familiar narrative it is, and I've been thinking about what that says about the kind of sexual advice that's given to men.

So then I go on about that for a while. )
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Leaving to Oregon tomorrow morning! Meanwhile, here's some more detailed stuff about the current state of the the Transgressive Sexuality in Science Fiction class, for those who are interested in following that. First here's the finished, or nearly so, reading schedule, divided into 'parts' because it's my class and I can be as pretentious as I want.

Recognisably descended from my original plan. )

Second, a prospective student wrote me a while ago and asked me, among other things, about my vision for the course. I interpreted this as a question about what I wanted to deal with theoretically and went on about it at moderate length, which I reproduce (with minimal editing) here.

A rather obscure discussion I'd like to have about genre and discourse... )
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This is where I'd ordinarily do my book reporting, but I actually didn't read any full novels in June this year. I know; pre~tty weird! Today was my mother's birthday and in celebration we went out as a family to watch All's Well That Ends Well at Bard on the Beach, which really is a lot more palatable if you read Helena de Narbon as a mad scientist throughout.

A couple of weeks ago I got Tori Amos' first album, Little Earthquakes, which is amazing and harrowing both in ways suggested but unmatched by her later records I'd heard. (I've been a Tori Amos fan since I was, like, ten; how did I go so long without hearing this? But there is so much important music I haven't sought out even yet.) It's been making me think, among other things, about the ethics and politics of cross-gender musical covers. Tori is known for these, although there aren't any on this album in particular. As a class, I really like them, the curious* tension in hearing somebody sing about a gendered experience which is at odds with the way I'm inclined to interpret their voice, and I've often thought of doing some myself, if I ever become a musician in some more proper sense; Noe Venable's "Prettiness", say, or Ani DiFranco's "Two Little Girls", which I really like to sing. The trouble is that the relationship between genders isn't symmetrical. Men in art historically have done a lot more of being allowed to speak for themselves, and women have done a lot more of being spoken for or otherwise relegated to the third or second person. So while both ways it can do some really interesting work of redefinition, when women sing men there is a natural weight towards that redefinition's being subversive, whereas when men sing women the natural weight is towards its being an appropriative act of erasure. And there are similar issues of sexism it would also be hazardous to ignore. Track two of Little Earthquakes has a refrain that goes, "She's been everybody else's girl; maybe one day she'll be her own." I really can't think of a way for a man's voice to sing this without adding an element of dismissive paternalistic judgement.

(* Or, to use a synonym that also has an appropriate technical meaning, 'queer'.)

I had a related experience a while ago with the Bikini Kill song "Rebel Girl". When I discovered it I really liked it, and fantasized a bunch about performing it and dedicating it to people, because I thought it captured something of how I felt about a lot of my female friends, and how I'd approached befriending them at least in my head. Later, I saw a documentary about the Riot Grrrl movement and how the scene was in part a conscious attempt to create a feminist safe space in response to the misogynistic character of a lot of punk shows the principals had frequented, and looking at the song in this light I realized that it was quite obviously an anthem specifically of female solidarity, which I had managed to completely overlook before because my immediate response to it was to overwrite it with the blithe interpolation of my masculine self.

Some time after that I was talking to a friend about this and I said something pretty similar to that last sentence, and she asked me why I didn't try using my feminine self instead, which was interesting because it bespoke a whole paradigm of gender that I'd kind of forgot existed, the whole new-agey thing (not a pejorative) where certain energies and characteristics are coded 'male' or 'female', and everyone has both and although they are generally encouraged to consider the ones aligned with their sex assigned at birth to be predominant, you're sort of incomplete if you haven't accepted and incorporated both. I can see how this is appealing, and why my friend thought that it might help soothe or even solve my difficulty (and I should clarify that I totally think the differences between men and women cultural or otherwise are not enough to prevent us from being allies, in feminism or any other arena! Well, except maybe misogyny. Hopefully that's all obvious). I find it personally dissatisfying for a few reasons, including A) that it's weirdly essentialist, taking genders to be absolute and universal categories that persist in roughly the same way over time to such a degree that even being a characteristic possessed by a woman is not enough to make it a female characteristic, and really I think of gender stuff as being way more constructed and mutable than that and would prefer ways of talking and thinking about it that reflect this; and B) it allows guys who are being called on their privilege to obfuscate by going like, no, you see, I'm in touch with my feminine side, so really to claim that I have male privilege is limiting and denies this whole aspect of myself!

No, actually, even if we accept this paradigm then people who are treated (and primarily conceive themselves) as men still have an ethical obligation to grapple with our privilege, because regardless of what qualities we have on the inside we're still members of the male political category, which is, yeah, kind of raised up relative to people who don't fall into it (though the intersection of other oppressions can complicate things). It's like, recently I've been realizing that my sexuality is, like everyone's, very weird and specific, and that the fact that it can be subsumed into the notion of 'heterosexuality' in its broad shape has actually been pretty limiting to me, because it caused me to assume that it was heterosexuality, this uniform thing that I shared with all the other straight people, which meant that I spent a lot of energy rationalizing some of the things specific to me in ways that didn't actually help me understand them at all. But the fact that I'm starting to identify as straight only in a pretty qualified way, and to recognise how heterosexism has actually harmed me personally, doesn't mean that I don't have straight privilege. Since I'm a cisgendered man whose attractions are mainly to women, I have a whole bunch of it whatever I call myself, and it continues to behoove me to recognise that.

So, yeah, I'm not sure what I'll do if I'm ever actually performing music on a regular basis. In the meantime I have an eye infection and it really itches, so I'm going to post this and then put some drops in it in lieu of just shoving my finger in there, which my willpower assures me I am not supposed to do.
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A while ago I was attending to some errand on the sales floor of the store in whose bowels (until the start of next term) I work, and they were playing a version of "Santa Baby" sung by a man. I listened with a certain amount of curiosity, but was disappointed to hear that he was singing, "Think of all the girls that I could've kissed." Why do people covering songs across genders think that this sort of alteration is a good idea? This is a song about using one's feminine wiles to titillate Santa Claus into giving more presents, and the listener is presumably aware of that by the time they hear this rendition; if you're singing it in a male voice, then, you're already pretty in tension with our unconscious gender expectations. Why not just embrace that tension?

New paragraph, new topic. Do you remember the X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"? It concluded with the suggestion that, regardless of whether there were aliens visiting, we are each of us alone in the universe. That's not among the science fiction touchstones that John Hodgman, er, touches upon here, but he nonetheless produces something that reminds me strongly of it tonally while functioning as an elegant rebuttal -- an argument that, regardless, we are not.

Wednesday dumped several feet of snow on the gradually-less-incredulous city. Then, yesterday, suddenly, it was above zero again. It's been raining on and off since, and the snowbanks are slowly sloughing apart, though they remain still mostly intact, like in the morning when you know you've been dreaming, but the ludicrous events you remember still feel like something that could reasonably happen in the real world.
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Attention popular culture and occasional human beings: actually, I understand women just fine, at least in numerous individual cases. I am not bragging here, because it is really not that hard. Their personhood is of the usual variety. Please stop exoticizing, 'kay thanks.
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Stubbornly, there is some.
William Gibson, Spook Country
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
George R. R. Martin, Fevre Dream
Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint
Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword
This batch highlights what is perhaps an unavoidable flaw in my method with these posts, or at least it will if a particular regular commenter asks about the book that I expect them to, because I read that book way back at the beginning of the month, and now my impressions are much vaguer than they were at the time. I can probably find something to say, though.
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I put "Run For Your Life" at the end of one of my mixes, and of course I own "Rubber Soul", so I've got to hear the reactions both visceral and considered that a bunch of people I know have had to this song. The tendency is to be bemused and kind of nervous; at least one person has gone so far as to evince real distaste for it. I think these reactions totally make sense, though I personally really like the song.

Visceral music pleasure aside, there are a couple of reasons why I do. The first, the one that got me when I first heard the song (on my first Teen Trip, which was seven freaking years ago and what the heck), is just the joke: that it's this enormously antisocial and alarming song sung catchily with nice harmonies by the Beatles. The fact that it's actually the Beatles makes a pretty big difference; it wouldn't be nearly as amazing if it were just sung by some other band in the style of the Beatles -- for one thing, that would be a much more obviously intentional incongruity. The second reason (which has grown as I've become more of a fan) is that I really appreciate the way that it's kind of the logical extreme of one of the major trends in John Lennon's early songwriting.

Then I elaborate. )
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I met a man named Dean, once. I didn't know much about him, except that he was of first nations ancestry, and had been born and spent most of his life physically a woman; because of this latter circumstance, he sometimes visited with newly-come-out young transgendered people, to offer practical advice and encouragement. That's where I encountered him -- he did this for the person I am closest to who is transgendered[1], and I was there, providing moral support.

Two of the things he said about his own experience stuck with me, because they were surprising and unfair. One was that, when he started to transition, he received a lot of anger about it from people he knew in the feminist community, even to the point of some women who had previously been fairly good friends cutting off contact because, "I don't have men in my life". The other was that, from everything he had seen, it was a lot more difficult in general for female-to-male transsexuals to get their psychiatrists' approval to take hormones, etc., than it was for most male-to-females. "People are happy to let you move from a position of power to a position of powerlessness," he said. "But they don't want to let you go the other way."

I historically have a pretty basic idea of what motivates people to transition; that they feel, very clearly, that their mind has a gender that doesn't match their body's, and that disparity is very upsetting. A while ago I was thinking of those things Dean said in light of that, and I thought, in order to think that this is a reasonable course, you have to have a position on gender moderate between two extremes. You can't think that the differences between the sexes are so important that the borders between them are inviolate, either because each has their place, or because they're naturally at war, or because to modify one's body and behaviour so is going against nature. (This seems to include, among others, the people who were unfair to Dean.) At the same time, you can't think that the differences between the sexes are cosmetic and meaningless, because in that case, why should this be important? Why does it matter which body you have?

More recently, though, I've been wondering if my own view is not accommodating enough (or, for that matter, sufficiently complex). In one of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, there's a character who goes to Beta Colony to get the surgery to become a man. One of the things I thought was fascinating about that character was that there was no indication that she'd always felt like she was a man, or like her femaleness was wrong. Her motives seem to be equal parts curiosity and the desire for political sway that was otherwise, on her backward planet, denied her. That I found her decision sensible and sympathetic, then, suggests that I don't really think that a disparity of gender-identity is the only reason why it's sound to have these procedures available, though I certainly think it's a good one; I've probably thought of and discussed it in those terms mostly out of a sort of laziness, because it's simple and straightforward, and because, being so obviously and viscerally sympathetic, it's easy to defend.

On Beta Colony, the surgery is widely available and easily reversible. (I don't know whether the government will sometimes pay for it, as ours does.) No outside permission needs be sought. They actually clone the relevant parts and systems, so that they are not only fully functional and convincing, but actually fertile. (Here and now, the methods we have for approximating penises, in particular, are extremely rudimentary.) When I read these things, I think: the future will be better.

--

[1]: My policy is not to identify this person in public, or to individuals who don't already know who it is, out of respect for their privacy and their desire to be seen as they see themselves. If you happen to know who it is, I'd appreciate it if you practised the same sort of caution in my comments.

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Andy H.

February 2013

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