the girl with the dragon tattoo

the girl with the dragon tattoo
Yes, I have a dragon tattoo as well

Δευτέρα, 22 Δεκεμβρίου 2014

“Straightness must be destroyed” - A discussion with Saffo Papantonopoulou

A couple of days ago, Saffo Papantonopoulou was invited at Mov Kafeneio by Massqueerraid to talk about her article “Straightness must be destroyed” at Yfanet Squat in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece. The room on Saturday evening was filled with people and the discussion, after the presentation, lasted for hours.

Here is how Saffo would present herself: I am a queer, transgender, thirdgender anarchist. My family is Greek-Egyptian and my mother was a war refugee. I was born in United States. I write this, based on my own experience of being queer in the United States. I hope and I believe that these ideas will prove relevant in a variety of contexts.” (Excerpt from the article “Straightness must be destroyed” by Saffo Papantonopoulou, in “Queering Anarchism” – AK Press, 2012, edited by C.B Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon and Abbey Volcano).

ArtemisFree: l'd like to start from the title of your essay in the Book “Queering Anarchism” called "Straightness must be destroyed". It's quite a provocative title and somebody might misunderstand it and think of something entirely different. Without reading it you get the impression that you hate straight people. But that's not the point... The point is that straightness in itself is a system. Can you explain this to the people that haven't read the essay?

Saffo: Sure. First of all, the title is provocative on purpose. I do want it to be unsettling. I want it to be unsettling for straight people. When I was writing it I sort of had a mixed image of who my imagined audience would be. The point of the whole book was, to be a kind of a beginner's guide to intersection between queerness and anarchism. So I imagined a common audience, not a theoretically abstract one. An audience who are new to queerness, new to anarchism. The point of the essay unfolded in the process of writing it. Basically I wanted to get away from all that "oh, some people are gay and some people are straight, and some people are trans or bisexual" and everyone has their own sort of self-identification. This is a neo-liberal approach. "Some people like Coke, and some people like Pepsi". We rather think about sexuality and gender as some systems that have a history that's political. We don't just have our sexualities, we are part of a historical process. Part of the idea that straightness is a system, is that I am not talking about identification, I am talking about a larger system that we need to think about... We have different words for it, we call it heteronormativity, patriarchy, cis-sexism. These are all different manifestations of this larger thing. We can call it straightness, we can call it heteropatriarchy, we can call it transphobia. All of these things that manifest themselves in different ways. So, a cis person, who is gay, who is transphobic, that's also a form of straightness.

ArtemisFree: Can you give us an example?

Saffo: One thing that I talked about is straightness as a regime that tells us of ways through which we are supposed to relate to our bodies and our sexualities and genders. One of the things I talked about is the ways that heterosexual desire is supposed to be performed, the narratives and expectations about how straight people are supposed to perform their sexual desire, as something that is tied to capitalism. So, a straight man wants to be married to his girlfriend. There is pressure that he should marry her and there is pressure to buy her a ring, that has diamonds on it, diamonds that are the cause of slaughtering people in subsaharan Africa. So, this is tied to a larger regime of consumption. And that's part of straightness as a system of social relations, the way people are supposed to relate to each other and to their own bodies.

ArtemisFree: In your example, the man does not have the money to buy the ring. So, he pays with a credit card and he gets into debt for years in order to pay for that. He is supporting diamond factories and the bank system. Something that people rarely think of, is the process of getting what they want. They think of a ring as something that they get from a shop and put it on their finger. That's the whole process for them, whereas you see the whole pattern of production and consumption.

Saffo: It's interesting too, because we can think about this as a kind of vulnerability on the part of the straight man. Straight masculinity, even though it presents itself as hyper-powerful, that performance of power places this burden of vulnerability on the straight man. You are not a real man if you don't buy a diamond ring. You know where this comes from? This comes from the history of the marketing of diamond companies, like DeBeers. I am not super familiar with the whole industry, but we can look at this as the process, how masculinity is produced. Another example that I am using, is something that I imagine is common in Greece but definitely not in United States. There are a lot of these young anarchists, teenage boys, who perform this kind of super maschismo, through their anarchism, and they think it's cool to throw Molotov cocktails at cops. The fact that there is this very gendered pressure to do so, is something that in the United States is used by the police as a form of entrapment. There are cases of undercover police that pose as older anarchists that put pressure on the young to do so. This performance of masculinity, which I tie back to a larger institution of straightness. So basically the idea of patriarchy, transphobia, heteronormativity, are all part of this larger institution that is tied to capitalism.

ArtemisFree: So, what about queerness?

Saffo: It's interesting to use queerness as the one obvious thing that I don't take up much in the essay. I sort of posit queerness as the antithesis to this. I don't have a clear picture about what queer is, or what queer isn't. I know that, at least in the United States and from what I understand in Greece, too, it's this very much like a fraught thing, like, here is a cis gender man, who is mostly straight, but who also sometimes kisses boys, and that comes off as queer. I guess the kind of idea of queerness that I am positing is, that queerness is a political struggle against straightness. If you contribute to dismantling straightness as an institution, then you are part of this queer struggle. But if you are a trans woman, then you don't experience queerness the same way as a bisexual cis man. So... What about queerness? (laughs)

ArtemisFree: I know you cannot include everything in a definition, but I am sure that at least you can give us something to think about!

Saffo: I intentionally didn't try to give a clear definition of queerness. I worry about being too invested in the term queerness. I worry about being too politically invested in words. One thing I see a lot of, in the United States, is younger, cis gender, white feminists, who are very, very, very into calling themselves feminists. And my reaction is, I don't know if you have this expression in Greek, but in English we say: "show, don't tell". Show me, don't tell me. Don't tell me that you are a feminist, show me that you are a feminist. Show me an action, like, what are you doing about patriarchy. I feel the same way about “queer”. Show me what are you doing to make the world a less straight space. What are you doing to combat patriarchy, and heterosexism, and heteronormativity, what are you doing to combat, the  globalization of gayness, which is also a problem.

ArtemisFree: Why don't you give us an example of such actions?

Saffo: I wish I had an answer. There is this question that I have about the politics of visibility, this idea that we need to make spaces queer, we need to perform queerness in public spaces that aren't vey queer. I think that can be part of it.

ArtemisFree: Let's see it like this. In Greece, there are demonstrations, events, in public, like kiss-offs, there are places like Mov Kafeneio, queer community spaces, Pride events, to a certain extent. It's something that you see in art, in universities, in academic works, you see it in a number of ways. What's more interesting is how communities work and what they can offer to people. Do you have experiences like this that you'd like to share? Example: how queer communities work and what do they add to this struggle?

Saffo: Community is definitely a word that I struggle with. Sometimes I am not really sure what it means, like I can't tell you what the difference is between a community and a clique. I have lived in New York for two years now, and there are so many queer people there, but I do not feel a very strong sense of community. I feel there are interspersed people, who go to the same parties, and go to the same shows, but again I don't necessarily find that to be what my vision of liberation would look like. This is something that I struggle with. Like a lot of people, I think. I have more questions/ideas/critiques than answers to these problems. What does a community look like?

ArtemisFree: The few weeks that you spent here, you've been to events, to Mov Kafeneio, for example...

Saffo: In the two weeks I've been in Thessaloniki I would say I've felt a closer sense of community among people here than in the two years that I've lived in New York. Which says something, considering that there are more openly queer people in New York than here. New York is such a big city. There is this sort of economy of scale that happens, where, in a place such as Thessaloniki, that is big enough for it to be a sizable number of queer people, that's still small enough, for it to be a small community. There is this sort of double-edged sword, where, it seems that to a certain extent people stick together. Even if someone is not necessarily your favourite person in the world, you say, there are not that many of us, we have to stick together - we also know each other and we hang out in the same places. There is this sense of jealousy that happens, among people, they would say, oh my God, why would you go from a place like New York, to Thessaloniki? The bigger it gets, the people feel the privilege of being selective, about what kind of people they hang out with. It's a double edged sword. There are communities in New York, but they are very hard to get into. You have to really work to be accepted in a community, you have to know the right people, it really takes a long time to build trust. Which is part of the ebb and flow of the city. People have the luxury to be selective about who they interact with. Which can also make it into a very, very lonely place. A very difficult place. I see it as part of the larger flow of capitalism, in places like New York city. Whereas Thessaloniki is sort of mixed capitalist, obviously, there is still this microcosm. And I see this a lot of times in smaller places. In queer communities, in smaller places, people can stick together. There is a sort of alliance with radical queer people in big cities. Because at other times, the struggle in big cities is among queer people. A political struggle between different queer people. And there is often a sense that people have, in smaller places, that you actually have the privilege of being able to alienate yourself from other queer people in bigger cities. Whereas in smaller places queer people that I know say "we have to stick together". I am not sure if that answers the question.

ArtemisFree: My next question is, what would your ideal queer community be like? What do you dream about, when you dream about a queer community?

Saffo: I guess I do dream about a queer community, but I also ask myself, what an ideal world would be like. And then it's about more realistic goals, and what you are realistically going to accomplish within your life-time. My ideal world would be a world without capitalism, and without neo-liberalism, and without straightness and a world where there wouldn't be a thing such as a queer community, because queerness itself would become redundant. I want the abolition of queerness, because I want the abolition of straightness. Without straightness there wouldn't be its antithesis, queerness.

ArtemisFree: Give us an example, of how you get from point A, to point B. How you get from a capitalist society to a society that is more fair.

Saffo: I wish I had an answer to that.

ArtemisFree: I am sure you have ideas.

Saffo: I have a lot of contradictory ideas. I didn't want to answer your question about queer communities, because I don't think we are necessarily going to abolish capitalism anytime soon. The question is, how we get there, what do we do in the meantime, to survive. And that, I don't know. I think that through queer forms of solidarity, people find the ways to express their needs, to be able to help each other out, to deal with their own internal conflicts, within the community. And that's really important. I think that it's important to do it in a way that is not insular. On one hand, there is this separatist move, that wants to be away from straight people, because it's hard being around straight people. Straight people can be fucking horrible. And I get that. And I don't like really being around straight people, but I also think that, finding a way to create a queer community that also allows in a sense the abolition of straightness by creating the kind of space and the kind of outreach and the kind of politics that will allow straight people to question their sexuality and gender is important. Because as marginalized group that's isolating, if we have our own isolated community over here, what does that do for the queer kid who's born into her straight family that feels like she's the only lesbian in the history of the world? Which is something that a lot of us have experienced. Every time a queer kid is born, they have to re-invent the wheel and search out and possibly find that queer community. And in the process they have to leave everything. They have to leave their home, they have to leave so many of their friends. I don't think that's sustainable as a long-term vision of what I want the universe to be. So, some sort of outreach, some sort of way that makes queerness, something that is accessible to people, is important, but I don't know how you do that.

ArtemisFree: Well, I see an effort, from volunteers that work towards this goal, organizing talks, and seminars, and they offer an open discussion on this topic, about what it means to be queer, or what queer people want when they fight for equal rights... I get the feeling that these actions have a very limited audience. They don't reach the wider audience that queer people want to reach. And sometimes I even get the feeling that queer communities don't care about this. They feel perfectly happy in their queer neighbourhoods, with their queer families, in the free spaces that they have, and they enjoy that. And they don't want to make a difference. They don't care about reaching out to straight people and have them see this difference.

Saffo: Yes, I agree.

ArtemisFree: Is this something that you see happening?

Saffo: Yes, yes, I definitely agree. I think this is a larger question for political movements across the board, not just queer movements. One thing I noticed, talking with people here in Greece, about the anarchist movement, is that it is this ritual back and forth, now we throw Molotov cocktails to the cops, then we go back to the University, or we have marches, or we have discussions, and in the U.S., it is, we have a protest, or we have rallies, we have petitions, and in general this feels like, ok, we are trying the same tactics over and over again, and it's not getting us anywhere, and I am talking about U.S. now. In U.S., in the 50s and the 60s it was revolutionary to have a picket outside, and it was "oh my God". Now, nobody cares. You can go and have your march. We had over 1 million people, protesting the war in Iraq in 2003. And it was the biggest protest ever, in the history of the world and the war still happened. The same happens with queer politics, the same with anarchism. I want to break up the pattern but I don't know the answer, about what is going to break this pattern.

ArtemisFree: I am going to give you an example. I was participating in a discussion regarding the organization of the Pride march in Thessaloniki for the first time. And as you know, we have a very conservative Archbishop in this town. So there were two kinds of opinions regarding church, during the discussion. One of them was, who cares about church, they suck, we can't change them anyway. And there was another opinion, saying, we shouldn't be very provocative, because they will use this and talk negatively about us to the people. And not a single person said, why don't we start a discussion with the Church. They speak about queer people as if they never met them. So, let us meet, and have a real discussion, and explain to them what the fuck we are talking about. I thought of that, but I did not mention it, because I was sure, that if I said anything like that, they would think that I am crazy, because it was so out of the norm. People find a definition for things, and themselves, and they stick to it. And they don't want to change that.

Saffo: I wouldn't want to talk to them, personally. I like that idea. I wouldn't feel comfortable to be the one speaking to them. I think the idea makes sense. You have to be creative in your tactics. One thing that I see a lot in United States, across all different points of the political spectrum... is an equation of tactics and ideology. You know, you have a political ideology and you have tactics, and they are supposed to be a toolkit for your political goals. A lot of times people equate anarchism with throwing Molotov cocktails and breaking windows, and this is both between liberals and conservatives. What, you are an anarchist? That's what you do, you smash windows. Sometimes a discussion can be useful. Sometimes throwing Molotovs can be useful. And sometimes signing a petition can be useful. And having a discussion with the church can be useful. I think that part of the problem (I don't know if this is happening in Greece, I am talking about the United States) is, people equating tactics with ideology. We have this particular ideology, we are going to use this particular tactic. I feel the same way about non-violence, for instance. What we call a non-violent protest, civil disobedience, non - violent forms of direct action. These are tactics and I don't really agree with turning non-violence into an ideology as opposed to a tactic. That's a similar problem. In terms of talking to the church, yeah, that's something we haven't tried. You do it, maybe it has results, maybe it doesn't, and then afterwards you meet with your group, and you discuss, what are the advantages of this tactic, what are the disadvantages, did it work, did it not, what were our goals, did we accomplish things? I think we should use an empirical approach. Try different things, and experiment, to get the results that you want, and if it doesn't, try something different. If you come up with the formula that can abolish capitalism, let me know! But I think we need to experiment more with tactics in general. People get too comfortable with the things they already know.

ArtemisFree: Thank you so much for this interview!

This interview happened on June 27, 2013, in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Τετάρτη, 15 Οκτωβρίου 2014

Not just another talent show?

I never thought I'd write a post about The Voice... But here it goes.

There is something happening in the U.S. version of The Voice this year that has not happened before. It's undoubtedly (pun intended) the combined presence of coaches Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams, that amounts to something more than a change in the coaches line-up. Pharrell and Stefani, going through the first round of the battles, consistently vote for the underdog - changing forever the face of this popular singing competition - probably for the better.

Christina Aguilera, or Usher, to mention some the those who sat in the red leather chairs before them, would almost never go for imperfect vocals or quirky characters. Given the choice, they would always pick the person who was able to "hit those high notes" - to use the favorite The-Voice-coach vernacular.

But Pharrell, for example, voted for 18 year old Elyjuh instead of the flawless performer Maiya. He picked up cross-eyed Luke instead of street-smart Griffin and indie rocker Taylor Phelan instead of the more hip Jordy, making those kind of choices that only Cee Lo Green or Shakira would make before him... However, Cee Lo Green and Shakira never shared the same coach line-up and through the seasons, they remained, themselves, as well as their artists, the underdog of the competition. Stefani boosted this alternative streak of choices, by picking Sugar's raspy voice, and Taylor's indie rock sensibility, instead of the more obvious choices, the good-looking Jean and Amanda Lee Peers, and she also stole country-singer Craig when Blake made the obvious choice and picked James David Carter.  The combined dynamics, that Stefani and Pharrell introduce now to the new season of The Voice may just be about what this competition promises: finding the next world-class superstar.

While Cee Lo Green and Shakira, made choices  in the past, that ultimately worked against them, when rooting for the underdog, Pharrell and Stefani seem to bring to the competition something that it really  needs, to make it to the next level: a breath of fresh air and the ability to find the right talent material to actually create such a superstar.

So far, the competition remains infamous for not being able to launch musicians to such a level for their careers, as it originally promises. United States winners, up to now, make some records (at best) or remain obscurely in the trenches of the music industry, never making a bigger name for themselves. I can't speak about what's happening to the rest of the planet, as the competition is happening in so many countries by now, from Albania to Australia, that it's hard to keep up with the news.

Setting aside what this kind of competition really is (a huge career opportunity for the coaches, a grinding stone for new talent, yet another vehicle in order to boost i-tunes sales, for a music industry whose old-time practices seem to go through its final death throes), this season's The Voice brings something to the game that was desperately needed: individuality.

Taylor Phelan's audition was one of the most memorable during the blind auditions phase. For me, it was refreshing to see an artist take the stand, instead of another well-meaning performer who only knows how to use their voice but would never be able to write a song - which usually constitutes the majority of the contestants.

Seeing Phelan making it to the next round, past the battles, is not only refreshing, it's also deeply satisfying. The Voice is great entertainment - I admit. But so far, it never amounted to anything more than this. Watching Pharrell and Stefani perform something that can only be equaled to a slalom down some very slippery slopes, my hopes are getting high, instead of going down.

So far, it was never the underdog that won the competition. Artists had to jump a lot of hurdles to make it to the finale. First, to use their voice in the best possible way, to make those chairs turn. Second, to be able to win the favor of the judges by proving that they can win a singing battle. Third, to win the favor of the audience. Will it happen this time? I certainly hope so.

It's by no means easy to go through all of those three stages. Artists are not usually qualified to do these things. Artists are qualified to listen to their own inner voices. Proving to be better than others, is a whole different game.  Even with the coaches' help, it can be impossible to win. The coaches make their own choices, and the audience does not always respond to them the way they expect it to, in the end.

It takes guts to go through this kind of ordeal, to tell you the truth. I respect and admire the contestants for daring to show up and compete. What makes The Voice different than other ridiculous talent shows, is, after all, that the level of the contestants is very high. Everyone knows how to sing already, for a start. But I can't help feeling that however well-meant the intentions of the contestants are, they are bound to be hugely disappointed. The coaches put them through hell during the battle rounds, often doing things that the contestants were promised not to. Gwen Stefani, for example, paired Menlik (the reggae singer) to Troy (a rock singer), taking back her word, from day one, that she would let Menlik perform reggae songs... Menlik was lucky enough to get stolen by Pharrell in the process.

Even if the contestants make it to the live rounds, they can be voted off at any point in the competition. After all, there can only be one to win. So, what's the point in this whole fanfare? It would be great if The Voice, at some point, does what it promises. Find and mold artists to their full potential. But, as things go, this is a slow and personal process for any artist. And it cannot happen during the show - the show, at best, could only be the pedestal for that.

It seems to me that Pharrell is the magic element in this competition. He has the know-how and the insight, as a producer, and the sensitivity, as an artist, to find and work with such a person- even if that happens aside the competition. I'd be really glad as a viewer, if that promise... became more than just a promise in the near future. It would make the Voice something more than it is right now: an entertaining way to spend weekday nights in front of the tv.

UPDATE: A few thoughts, after the finals. It seems that unconventional choices cost Gwen Stefani's and Pharrell Williams's teams a place in the finals. Adam Levine's and Blake Shelton's teams occupied all the top four spaces in the finals with Levine's team, who got three singers at the top four, owning 75% chances to win. Despite the odds, Levine's team lost, and Blake's single man came out swinging: Craig Wayne Boyd, the underdog, throughout the competition, a guy that was passed around from team to team, made it to the top. An unexpected one, for sure.