Monthly Archives: January 2017

Fear of Contamination

Dear  humans, after 9/11, 2001, I wrote a piece called “Risk of Contamination” for Brendan Lemon, who was then the editor of Out Magazine. In the essay I compared the way fear of the female body as a contaminating agent of maleness operated in both western and eastern philosophies and practices. I said a crisis in the concept of masculinity in both the east and the west was endangering the world, and I said this crisis in the concept of masculinity linked geo-political factions that otherwise saw themselves as enemies.

I feel a need to review these ideas and make them available to anyone interested. This post is drawn from excerpted pieces I have written and email exchanges with friends. I’m providing it as a resource. Please do not debate me on this post. I am not a debater, and I will delete you. You are free to write what you want on your posts and debate there. Please do not mansplain to me about how I don’t understand race and class or whatever else you do not think I understand. If I want mansplaining, I can look in the mirror. Please do not ask me to explain humor. FYI: I have included a review of Spielberg’s “A.!.,” with many relevant themes, at the end of the post.

My focus is on misogyny, sexism, gynophobia, and patriarchy. I am going to speak about the psycho-dynamics of world events, the way phobias operate at an unconscious level and how individuals and societies disavow knowledge even as it forms in front of their faces. These thoughts critique essentialism—the notion that any identity has an essential (ordained, natural, universal, unchanging) character. I do not believe the identity of anything is fixed. It changes. It is mixed. It has always been mixed. “The natural” is a human construction. As soon as human beings learn something, it feels like we have always known it. That is the way “the natural” is born. If nothing is essential, nothing is pure. It never was. I will also be touching on “decline-and-fallism,” the notion that the present is a debased version of a previous golden age (when things were pure). Make American Great Again. That kind of thing. There is a long history of this thinking. It is called “negative classicism.” Patrick Brantlinger wrote a brilliant book about the history of negative classicism in Bread and Circuses, Theories of Mass Culture As Social Decay.

The concept of “maleness” is defined in all religions and in the societies shaped by religions as “not female.” In religions and other ideologies of enforced, gendered power, the function of perceived femaleness is to comment on maleness. In these thought structures, femaleness is a contaminating agent that must be kept separate from maleness, lest it pollute and degrade maleness. How do you keep it separate? You confine and control the female body, especially the sexual female body, in public and private space. You determine whether it can freely engage in sexual behavior. You maim and kill it if it expresses desires that threaten the sovereignty of males to control it. You attach notions of honor and purity to it that constrict and sometimes destroy it. You determine it must be draped and shorn to limit its sexual power over males. You outlaw abortion. No one cares about unborn embryos. They care about organizing the female body’s social role.

Here is the kicker. The practitioners of the most orthodox and rigid ideologies of male supremacy suspect maleness is already hopelessly contaminated. They know in some part of their half-conscious minds that if there were really such a thing as an essential male nature and an essential female nature, none of this policing would be necessary. The fear of contamination becomes a symptom that the contamination has already occurred and that people are hopelessly mixed. Fascism and other forms of totalitarianism are the shit-storm tantrums released when knowledge is simultaneously registered and disavowed. It is the crazy inside doublespeak and doublethink.

Every fascist and totalitarian regime immediately legislates to control the female body and force it to comply with its perceived biological function as a way to reinstate all forms of control and order. This is symbolic and also believed to be a practical remedy for social unrest. The out-of-control female body, in polluting everything, incites all reversals of ordained divisions of power. Outlaw abortion, and the poor will abandon their unions. If that doesn’t actually work, make poor people poorer.

All the other hatreds that exist around the perceived contamination model operate on the same system as the gender binary, so you could say they are modeled on this central hatred. You do not end misogyny, sexism, gynophobia, and patriarchy by addressing race, economics, class, ethnicity, and cultural diversity, because hatred of the female operates in all of these other systems as well. You might get rid of racism, homophobia, etc. by addressing what is at the heart of the gender binary and its false definitions of what a male person is, what a female person is, and what a person of mixed sex identity is. Only female humans are reviled entirely on the basis of being female . . . male humans are reviled for an aspect of their perceived identity that is separate from their identity as male humans . . . i.e. black males, Latino males, gay males, disabled males, Muslim males. I am in no way saying the injuries of racism are less horrendous than the injuries of misogyny. Included in the injuries of misogyny and sexism is that women are the only humans who actively militate against their own increased freedom and mobility. Who does something like that? A large number of white women voted for Trump, maybe not the disputed 53% statistic, but many.

The following comments on race evolved in a conversation with a friend who wanted to compare race and gender hatreds. This is from my email: We now know race is entirely a social construction without biological validity, and we know that around 60,000 years ago the homo sapiens we all evolved from moved out of Africa and across the globe. I think there may come a time in the future when so-called white people will no longer exist. Humans will all be mixed and their skin colors different and darker shades. That won’t end prejudice based on skin color, perhaps, but it is an evolving condition, always undergoing transformation. Although race may not be a real and fixed identity, phobias and hatreds around the perception of race difference are definitely real things. The same can be said of homosexuality. Humans do not exist in a homosexual/heterosexual binary, but the reality of homophobia is real. With regard to the male/female binary, that, too, is in many ways socially constructed, since there are more than two sex identities. Still, most people are born with either female or male sexual characteristics, and on to this binary has been layered a giant philosophy and ideology of difference. I said earlier that in patriarchal cultures, religions, and societies—meaning all the ones that exist now on the planet—maleness is defined as not-female and female is less defined than used as an instrument to comment on maleness. In any binary, there is always a power difference, and when there is a power difference, the group constructed as less powerful is policed, lest its less powerful essence contaminate the group that has power. In the gender binary, the female body is segregated, covered, and ritually cleansed to keep it from physically contaminating the male body and the male sphere, and the female body is maimed, jailed, and murdered for perceived transgressions against its so-called ordained roles. (The idealized female body is a subset of the reviled female body . . . neither is real or has anything to do with what women are and feel themselves to be.)

This model of policed and inferior being is the core model on which all other forms of phobic hatred are based. It is prior, many thousands of years old. Using the term “male” to signify “the powerful” and “female” to represent “the subordinated,” then whiteness is male and blackness is female. Heterosexuality is male and homosexuality is female. Christianity is male, and Jews and Muslims (in the west) are female. Western colonial practices are male, and eastern subordinated countries are female. The deserving wealthy are male, and the undeserving poor are female. All propaganda campaigns of binary hatred use the same slurs to diminish the disempowered and policed group and these slurs are essentially the same as are attributed to females. Jews in Nazi propaganda and people of color in white dominated societies, to name two, are described as hyper-sexual, closer to animals, scheming, untrustworthy, tribal, clannish, disgusting in their social and physical practices, deformed in their physical beings and characters. Hence they must be segregated or destroyed lest they degrade the power body which is always at risk of mixing, miscegenation, contact, etc. and thus weakening the pure. So what I am saying is not that all women have it worse in society and culture than other oppressed people. Not by a long shot, depending on class, skin color, economic opportunities, etc. I am saying gynophobia and the misogynist and sexist practices that issue from it is the blueprint for all hatreds shaped by binary thinking and binary levels of oppression and double standards. What we are seeing in this country now is a violent reaction to the success of a black president and the candidacy of a female running for office. Trump has given white, heterosexual, unhappy male humans a forum to express the way they have been made to feel their power curtailed. White heterosexual male privilege is not supposed to know it exists. It is supposed to be taken for granted by everyone. It is supposed to be understood as natural, even to the people still moving in the world with that assumption, and yet this has changed. It has been challenged. It has been turned into a thing for contemplation, not a component of nature and of the natural. At least this has happened.

To see how I used some of these ideas in a piece of art criticism, here is an excerpt from a review I wrote about A.I. originally published in Tikkun.

From a review of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), a film about the rise of Nazism:

Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” is a messy concoction of startling and plodding ingredients, but in moments of originality, it boldly grapples with fears of otherness. . .. The film comes alive in the middle section when we are introduced to Gigolo Joe, played by a radiant Jude Law. Joe is a robot designed as an ardent sex partner, and he is the most charged and canny presence on screen. In this section, too, Spielberg presents a wise and witty gloss on decline-and-fall thinking and the scapegoating of perceived cultural polluters. “A.I.” depicts a dystopia that is a consequence of our failures. Due to the misuse of Earth’s resources, the ice caps have melted, coastal cities are submerged, and the population has become tightly controlled, hence the need for robot children. At this point, robots, known as mechas, have become so advanced many are indistinguishable from humans, called orgas. The ranks of mechas have swelled because they labor without food. But although created to serve orgas, mechas are hunted and ritually tortured in gatherings called Flesh Fairs.

The film is shot almost entirely from the perspective of mechas. David and Joe are captured and caged, and we see a Flesh Fair through their eyes. The atmosphere is part rock concert, part Nuremberg rally. The audience is a mob, whipped to a frenzy by a promoter’s rhetoric of race hatred and ethnic cleansing. “This is a commitment to a truly human future,” he brays, as buckets of acid eviscerate and liquefy sacrificial mechas. He swears by “the law of blood and electricity.”

Gripping and sly, these scenes illuminate the mechanics of dread. The fear is of contamination, some sort of pollution seen to have a diluting, enervating effect on a group that considers itself whole and defined by essential and fixed characteristics. Castration anxiety, in other words. The threat of contamination is perceived to be from outside. All campaigns of hate against perceived others and all laws against miscegenation are based on the notion of a purity at risk of becoming degraded. In this understanding, the invigorating effects of hybridization aren’t valued, if they’re even recognized. Rather, mixing is imagined as a decline and fall. In the mind of the person who sees such threat, a sentence keeps looping: “Things used to be better, but now the times are sick, and the infection has to be cut out.”

The film shows there is never a time when this fear isn’t ticking away, because as soon as the idea of purity is formed, worry forms about its fragility. As soon as there is worry, it feels like proof that the contamination has already occurred, so in the minds of purists, the present is always a time when things are worse than they were in an imagined, safer past. Fear of otherness is a forceful denial that dilution has occurred, because the secret belief is, indeed, it has.

The orgas are aware that the boundary between what characterizes them as human and what defines mechas as nonhuman is continually shifting. “I’m real,” an orga child taunts David, as the boy, recently resuscitated from a cryogenic coma, clomps around with prosthetic devices on his legs. Amid a dump site filled with extinguished mechas, damaged mechanical beings rummage for replacement parts, attaching a new arm or jaw with an ease that humans awaiting organ donations can only long for. On a wall in the building where David is fabricated is a painting depicting “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a fable about the power of mass suggestion and the difficulty of acknowledging reality that is staring you in the face.

Who are we now? The mapping of the human genome, the increasing miniaturization of computer chips, research into brain function, and advances in robotics—all these promise increasingly intelligent, sentient machines, some of which will aid human beings by mixing with and penetrating them. Implantable devices are in the works that will enable blind people to process visual images and people with spinal cord injuries to use their leg muscles. Does anyone consider the heart patient now living with a mechanical ticker and people with other prosthetic devices less human? Today, amputee runners, outfitted with titanium legs, can outstrip sprinters with flesh-and-bone limbs. The metal legs don’t look like human legs and aren’t trying to imitate them. They are beautiful according to their own aesthetic. The freak over there has always been inside us.




3AM Magazine review of Animal

3:AM Magazine
home reviews essays interviews fiction poetry blog submissions twitter
:: article
urban fauna: a review of my life as an animal
By Joan Hawkins.

Laurie Stone, My Life as an Animal (Northwestern University Press, 2016)

When My Life as an Animal was published last fall, Largehearted Boy invited its author, Laurie Stone, to post a playlist for the book. She programmed Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan sliding right into Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s a telling accompaniment to a story collection that shifts register and tone, upends genres, and challenges reader expectations, all without losing the reader’s trust. Animal belongs to what Stone has called “Third Narratives”—something between fiction and non-fiction that incorporates techniques “drawn from novels and short stories, memoir, cultural criticism, essays, journalism and photography.” It’s a hybrid text, a mongrel form. It engages memoir, in the sense that it is a book composed of life-events and fragments. But it incorporates the narrator’s intellectual life as well. And so there are lovely lengthy passages talking about Jewish history, Beckett, W.G Sebald, cellular biology, museums and the sculpture of David Nash.

“We who write poetry,” Eileen Myles once wrote, “and think about it all the time—who walk the streets that other humans walk, past pizza stands and trees, are citizens meanwhile of another country,” a country where everything—the most random encounter, the most banal of tasks—becomes grist for the mill. Writers are always writing, and Stone’s achievement lies in vividly showing how that is true for prose writers as well as poets.

Some of the stories are long, moving gracefully between present and past lives. Some are quite short, a few pages, that operate like brief shot sequences (rather than fully fleshed out scenes) within the larger movie of the narrator’s life. For me, the long pieces in the volume are the more satisfying, but that may well be part of Stone’s strategy. There’s an element of bricolage here, a sort of do-it-yourself construction (the original handy-man meaning of bricolage). Animal is a work built from the ground up, out of scraps, and bricolage is perhaps the perfect literary mode for discussing one’s life, because that’s what life is—a DIY edifice made from found fragments, assembled with creativity, courage and brio. Since the volume aims to call attention to what we think we want from a story, the short pieces remind us that life is never one long, unbroken narrative, but filled with moments, mere snapshots of events and people we’re not sure advance the larger narrative of our lives.

Borrowing from cinematic montage, the book’s structure uses linkage and juxtaposition, allowing each narrative to comment on the ones preceding and succeeding it. The stories can be read independently of the others, but the full impact comes only at the end, once all the stories have been experienced. And as in montage, the effect here is not of smoothing out contradictions into one homogenized whole of a life, but rather that of a collision, which creates meaning through fission. What Stone’s narrator is looking for is not absolute truth but rather the “narratively right”—meaning, “the relief of patterns.”

Stone’s narrator is smart, funny, well spoken, and complex. Prickly, too. She finds her way in life, and in these stories, by challenging ideas and arguing with those close to her. If you’re looking for a sweet cozy of a tale about a 60-year-old woman falling in love and moving to Arizona, you need a different book. There is a sweetness here. But like fleur-de-sel chocolates, it’s complicated with an edge of salt—a fierce and demanding intelligence. Animal is the perfect book for that corner café table that Patti Smith writes about in M Train, where you read and reread books until you get the hang of their logic.

If you have the time, try to read this book in one long sitting, perhaps two. The montage effect is at its most pronounced in the first half of the book, and it’s best not to let too much time elapse between reading those stories. Animal opens in medias res: a 6o-something writer (I will call her L. to distinguish her from the author) has fallen in love with Richard, a 56-year-old professor of museum studies, and has moved to Arizona to be with him. In the first story, she haunts garage sales, looking for the items they need to furnish their new home, and setting out, in the process, many of the themes that recur across stories. L. doesn’t see what her lover Richard sees. “It is one of the reasons I like floating along beside him,” she says. But it’s also a source of tension throughout the book. She’s American; he is English. She’s Jewish; he is not. She avidly collects stories, easily falling in love, she says, with strangers who look interesting or make a connection. He’s more reserved, less in the moment. “You two will always fight,” L.’s friend, Catherine, says. And L. agrees, citing a deep ambivalence at the heart of real love. “With us it is always, ‘Do you love me as I am?’ And the answer is ‘Yes and no.’ We are of two minds. We half-believe.”

From here, the stories fan out, drawing from different parts of L.’s life. Sometimes they explicitly reconnect with Richard, with Arizona, with the present. Sometimes they’re there to show us how L. came to be the person who would, at the age of 60, cast caution to the wind one more time. “I believed this kind of thing would not happen to me again,” she says. But “when has anything you thought about the future turned out right?”

In “Sixty,” she tells us, she met Richard at Yaddo, the artist colony in Saratoga Springs. At the end of their stay there, they drive to the airport and can’t find the entrance. “It’s a sign I shouldn’t leave,” he tells her. But he’s married. And when he gets home, he will tell his wife of many years that he has met someone. “Richard says he did not leave his marriage for me,” the narrator tells us. “He says Yaddo cracked him open.”

She could have left it there. But she doesn’t. “We believe what we believe,” she tells us, implying that Richard may be deceiving himself. And in a story that is also about Kate Millett and the early days of Second Wave feminism, she ends on a note that is honest and politically incorrect. “I am on a train a year later,” she writes, “and run into a woman I slightly know. I tell her about Richard, and she says, ‘How could you let him leave his wife?’” The woman “does not sound judgmental,” L. tells us, “more like a naturalist asking a scorpion how pincers work. I say, ‘Richard decided,’ but she knows I did not put a gun to his head, and I know I did not say, ‘Stop,’ because he might have listened to me.”

“If you think there is a part of you that makes you unlovable,” she writes earlier, “you will protect it like a child and show it to everybody.” One of the deep strengths of this book is its refusal of what Sartre called bad faith. The narrator trusts the reader’s intelligence enough to speak bluntly about the things we often try to camouflage. After all, who hasn’t, at one time or another, played the scorpion? Who wouldn’t be willing to do so, if the right person stood at the end of a ramp, “looking like an arrow with his slim body and silver hair, and the hard little spike that holds [us] up just melted.”

One of the brilliant maneuvers in this not-quite-romantic romance is to place the sobering story “Leaving Gardner” at approximately the halfway mark. It’s a story that marks a complicating turn in the larger narrative. In her thirties, L. fell in love with Gardner, an artist 20 years her senior. When she was 44, he died of cancer, after a terrible struggle that Stone describes as only she can. “There is something about language,” she writes later in the book, “that hurts the thing it describes.” Usually I would agree with her, but not in this instance. Describing the cancer-ravaged body of her beloved, L. speaks in a way that filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha has called speaking nearby. Speaking nearby is different from speaking about, in that it allows the person or the thing described to have its own voice. For those of us who have loved and lived with people who died of cancer, the final days are marked with the disease’s own very clear narrative. Cancer’s voice, when you hear it, is quieter and less obscene than the demon in The Exorcist, but no less insistent on gaining total possession of your body. It is that voice that is caught here.

The story reminds the reader just how great a leap the now 60-something L. is making. When you fall in love at 20, at 30, at 40, you can believe in happily-ever-after. By the time you’re 60, and have lost both your parents, a lover, and countless friends, you know that there can be no forever. If the relationship works out, if you get your Secret Agent Lover Man, and if you don’t die together in a car accident, a bomb explosion, or a natural disaster, then one of you will have to watch the other die. And that awareness is fundamentally alters the political economy of love. “We fall in love with people we don’t pick, not really,” L. tells us. “Love falls over you like a weather condition, a wolf’s paw, a cape.” But when it happens at 60, it takes a lot of courage not to run away as fast as you can. This story, and the collection as a whole, reminds us of what the diamond ads and Disney movies fail to tell us about what love really is: an existential crisis, an engagement without appeal.


Joan Hawkins is an associate professor of cinema and media studies in the Media School at Indiana University. She has written extensively on horror and the avant-garde. Her books are Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde and Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001. She is currently co-editing an anthology on William S. Burroughs.

Back to top