Wednesday, November 12, 2008

ideological commitment, and the emergent body


How I love to call you my libertarian friend. It pleases me, and not in the way that people collect friends in the act of self-congratulation way to show to others their open-mindedness and diversity. Like, whatever. More that, to myself privately, I am pleased as punch that you choose to be my friend, and that we are friends. Mind you, I rarely say "look, people, at Amber, my libertarian friend," as if that was the way to introduce you. At least, not without trumpets and tambourines. To be honest, I hardly think about it, since we rarely talk about the scope of government, regulation, tax policy, etc. But on the few occasions I do think about it, I am pleased, because I am thankful for your friendship and thankful that I am less of an appalling brat than I was six years ago. Ok, maybe there is something to this friend-collecting business. Just kidding! But seriously, you and I have both experienced the myopic insularity of law school--birds of a feather flock together, and back then I was hanging out with the public interest/critical race kids (still love the former, iffier on the latter) and apparently, we were not going to flock to the Federalists.

You and I both regret not going to U Chicago Law, though we could've, should've, would've (we might have been roomies!). We ended up at different schools for different reasons and hating them in respectively different ways. But in many ways I am glad we met after law school (our parallel tracks of brutalizing law org experiences and adventures in social closure are uncanny), and that I didn't meet you as a stupid, naive, and scared 22 year old. I'm also glad we met the way we did, through our blogs. You and I are both social misfits, never comfortable in any group, whether that group is based on identity or politics (or both!). You may be dissatisfied with your libertarian cohorts, but I suspect you'd be similarly dissatisfied in a Women's Studies program. I'm so uncomfortable wherever I am, that I have to jump ship from the law school to the sociology department to the business school every few days just to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. Move around, never make ideological affinities into bloodties, and basically adopt a grifter's approach to ideas and groups. You take and use what you can, but you never stay too long in one place. It sounds awful and utilitarian, but so does blind ideological loyalty.

And I don't have as much ideological loyalty these days. I sometimes worry about that about myself, till I remember how "flip-flopping" has become a term of derogation when in fact it might mean weighing the options and considering all sides of an argument. Why must I commit myself to an idea, unless I am sure that idea is sound? I am still, and I imagine I will always, be committed to principles of equality, anti-discrimination, and social welfare. But how to enact those principles, the minutiae of policy--these I am less certain about, and will always be adjusting my perspective. Nowadays, I feel like it's easier to commit to people than ideas. Not to people with bad ideas like racism, misogyny, or homophobia of course, but I can imagine loving someone through a lot more mistakes and inconsistencies than I can imagine loving an idea that produces bad outcomes and lacks an internal logic.

You are right, the more work I do in anti-discrimination law and research, the less sure I am about propriety of applying law to regulate every aspect of workplace conduct to ensure the desired outcome, as certain regulations on behavior may abrogate other competing norms and personal freedoms. While I in general favor robust anti-sexual harassment policies, I am less convinced about workplace bullying--I certainly hate bullying, but unless it's predicated on some illegal basis for discrimination as enumerated in Title VII and elaborated with some specificity by the EEOC and the courts, I can't say I'm sold on the idea of outlawing assholes. Yes, I feel like a bad liberal.

Moving on, because I'd rather not think about that, and TD thinks that I have to get over my cognitive dissonance if I'm ever going to get work done and "get over myself." Go with caracal. Though work goes better for me lately, I derive even more pleasure from taking care of another. See, e.g., my recipe for awesome beef, barley, and leek soup. See also, my recipe for corn chowder. Just take out the butternut squash, you anti-squash person. It's great when you add stuff to it, like corn and bacon. Bacon makes everything better.

Your last point is the most intriguing. I too, do not currently have a blog crush. This makes me sad. In general, I like the writing of Timothy Burke, Eric Rauchway and Ari Kelman at Edge of the American West, Scott Eric Kaufman, and A White Bear, but not in that way. While I always learn something from these writers, and am always excited to read their blogs, I do not fixate on the authors themselves as the objects of my intellectual lust. The last blog (and to real life!) crush I had was you, and I declared this publicly, if obliquely. Although I still don't think of you in "that way."

But I don't know what is "that way" for me. I am quite certain that it's individual, despite your asking me to articulate a general theory of the blog crush. Actually, I tried to articulate such a theory just a year ago in dialogic form:

Web 1.0: But you're only "reading" them--what they write may not be who they are; or be only one side of them. The authorial voice is never authentic nor complete. The authorial voice is full of deceit; the Artful Dodger as it were. Plus, you are not in love with the person. You are only in love with what they write. You love the words, not the author.

You're talking about crushing on people who 1) actually exist, 2) you can easily get in touch with by commenting or emailing, and 3) potentially meet their real life person and compare it to their blog persona in those blog meet ups you weirdos do. It's much easier for the real world and the blogosopheric world to collide, with potentially disappointing results, when you crush on someone not imaginary or out-of-reach. Bloggers are not all that different from you or me--they just have different time-allocation priorities. Nobelists and poet laureates of England (where it actually means something) on the other hand, are worthy of long-distance worship. What you are doing is apotheosizing the mundane.

Belle: But you highlight the danger and deliciousness of the permeable barrier between the online and real-life worlds: whereas in the past time and space were insurmountable barriers to intellectual love, now such love affairs of the mind can be carried out at least in some real-life, real-time form. I may be too timid to approach someone I like in real life, but my fingers are bolder on the keyboard than they would be on someone's arm.

And are we going into economic analysis of the crush? Crushes are inherently irrational uses of thought and emotion, as is most of love, unless you are so outcome-oriented that you think such emotions and experiences must necessarily produce something of utility, e.g. sex or children. I am far too romantic and non-utilitarian to think like that. Crushes are fun, if profligate uses of time. And blog crushes are no less real than someone you pass by on the street and happen to fancy, irrationally, merely based on their appearance and mien. Remember how Petrarch fell in love with Laura? What about coup de foudre? There's an entire literature on love at first sight, which is highly specious. I would say that the myth of love/lust at first sight is what inspires at least 1/4 of all love poetry.

Web 1.0: But you're not having love at first sight. At least that is corporeal and chemical and possibly real. What you're doing is obsessively reading someone and forming an imagined construction of them. They may not be as awesome as you think.

Belle: Probably not. But that's the nice, low-cost thing about blog/intellectual/academic crushes. They don't really have to live up to your expectations. And besides, most of the time, bloggers put so much of themself into their blog, that unless it is purely dry, non-personal blogging, you are going to get the equivalent of their entire personality in all of its wonderful weirdness. Their intellectual obsessions, opinions, quirks, hobbies, habits, way of thinking, writing--it is a more complete view of a person than any passing glance could give you, unless those are some seriously powerful pheromones. In my mind, they have more basis than the passing fancy.

Web 1.0: So you would actually read someone's entire blog, plumbing the archives, just because you like the way the write and want to read more of it, hoping to get a better idea of what they might be like in real life on the off chance that you will correspond, on the super off-chance you'll meet, and on the off-the-charts chance that you'll be satisfied that they live up your expectations, knowing that they probably will not? You would spend all that time?

Belle: Yes. Why not? I spend a lot of time writing my own blog, why should I not spend some time reading those of others whose writing I like as much as any novel or academic text? I've read entire oeuvres by authors, papers by academics, and love letters of suitors--why wouldn't I read the archives, and daily posts, of someone's blog if I enjoy it? Why wouldn't I consider writing them (at first linking and commenting, for I am shy) if I would consider writing a fan letter (I wouldn't, but there are those who do), letter of interest in someone's work, or billet doux?

Sorry to quote myself at length, but I wanted to use that to launch into a reconsideration of my own theory. I do still believe most of that. Looking at the date of the post though, it is ironically they day I met TD. TD, whom I met in real life and not through blog first. TD, who not only doesn't blog, but he also isn't a part of any type of Web 2.0 social networking platform. I spend hours talking to TD over the phone or in person, but the ink spilled from his pen (at least, addressed to me) would fill a thimble in comparison to my blog crushes. I am steadfastly committed to TD, but of course I wonder if my intellectual writing-based crushes will ever flare up and make me forget the value of a pound of flesh that someone is actually giving to you freely. So far, no, mainly because as realistic I am about real-life love, I'm downright pessimistic about flights of intellectual fancy. Of course, it is hard to compare real-life love to blog love. And the point was to distinguish something different about blog love, right? So my theory, articulated a year ago, can be true even if I myself am no longer under its sway. Although now I can think more consciously about the difference between love of the physical and love of the text.

I bring all this up, not to overshare, but because you ask me about eroticism in text. Well, at the time I wrote this ode to fanciful love, I was starved for real love. Blogs were all I had! I caught up to that unlinkable post you obliquely referenced. I totally get how you can find sex in writing--that to me, is not controversial. Read 18th C stuff and you totally get flushed. There's a lot of sex in books, and a lot of sex in between the lines--descriptions of longing and passion, buried or expressed, will always get to me more than porn. And besides, Judith Butler has already gone over how to find the body in writing. See also the work of Helene Cixous. People who actually went to English lit grad school will be far more equipped to explain those than I, the law school sellout.

What you're asking about is how the body in text (so well analyzed by Butler and Cixous) emerges in the particular case of a blog author. While we can read Tess of the d'Urbervilles and reasonably imagine her character in full form thanks to the omniscient narration and exquisite description, can we produce a body from a blog post? Can we produce a body that we would love as much as a real body? Will the bodies match, or will they be awkward, misshapen mirrors of each other, one representing the real and one being the fantasy? My dialogic theory articulated a year ago kept the distinction between the incorporeal text and the corporeal body: I said that you fall in love with words, which in the aggregate give rise to an idea/l of the person, which is enough for love. Upon reconsideration after actually having love in my life with a person who really exists and acknowledges my presence and returns the affection, ehh, now I'm not so sure. I used to blog crush more profligately than I do now. Then I realized that bodies matter, and not merely the ones that emerge numinously from text. I am not going to tell you how I realized that bodies matter, but I am sure you are also sympathetic to the idea that blog crushes can go one of two ways: 1) awesome, or 2) heartbreakingly disappointing when face and form meet the light of day.

And you bring up frontstage/backstage in blogging to further eluciddate all the ways blog crushes can go wrong. For more about authenticity in blogging, see here and here. Blog folks, let me tell you that in real life, Amber is just as awesome, if not more awesome. I remember being slightly afraid of you when I met you. You are so sassy and snarky and bad assy on the blog! And (these are not mutually exclusive, 'cause you still got sass), so warm and kind in real life, what with the open sharing and generous sympathy, and the ensuing presents with which we showered each other. I remember, as you do, us leaning over the table as we talked so intently. And I think it hits me now, that as much as you have described yourself on your blog, and as many pictures as I can see of you on your Flickr, how unprepared I was for the actual corporeal you: the look in your eyes, your facial mannerisms, the timbre of your voice. While you are as authentic in real life as you are on your blog, and there's hardly any mismatch (but still, always front/backstage, can't get around it I'm afraid), the you on the blog cannot compare you in real life. I could love the you on the blog, and love the real you even more (as I do), or if things had gone horribly in that alternate universe, loved you less.

So, it is my considered judgement, after thinking about this for a while, that blog crushes derive from text and imagination, no matter how authentic the author strives to be. Sorry, Amber. You are keeping it real, but the real you is not captured by your blog, because it cannot capture the body in its three dimensions. All that remains is flesh, but flesh matters, because it is how we interact with you. Even if true bodies emerge from text, they are stiff cut-outs: love is in the interaction between the paper forms and real people, and while the text may be written generally for you, the reader, it is not directed at you, the person. This is also why Pygmalion was not satisfied with the version 1.0 Galatea. Though he created her and she was as real as could be, she couldn't respond to his touch, and couldn't fully articulate his idea of her. Thus, blog love will always be an inchoate, heartbreakingly stunted love based on nothing real.

This all reminds me of conversations you and I have had off-blog about our own blog-crushers, if we have any. I occasionally describe my physical self, and it's no secret that I'm 1) Asian, 2) short, and 3) petite. I have occasionally tried to find celebrity equivalents, though I am apparently too race-essentialist and so fail. Because of my round face, penchant for dresses, red lipstick and eyeliner, do I look like an Asian Regina Spektor, minus the curly hair? See, that just sounds ridiculous. At least you could point to Felicity Day. But I have no pictures up, except for this fake one that I like because it's pretty. So I am bewildered by the emails I occasionally get, some international, expressing fandom. (Current correspondents/friends are not included in my list of weirdos.) Law profs being solicitous about my career I get, harder to understand are invitations to chat from tiny little island-nations and dude, poetry. You said that the picture, even if obviously fake, is like an idealized version of myself, or maybe by the mystery is what attracts the letters. I guess I sort of get that, although that means that they're definitely responding to the emergent body rather than the real body.

Like you, I like the flesh well enough, and like you, am more convinced of its appeal than in my mind. What is up with that though? You and I are over-educated and score well on standardized tests, yet we continue to feel inferior to the other bloviating smart kids. After teenage awkwardness that finally got its act together and so many years of pouring myself into studies, the one area I excelled (cause I failed at Love 101), I feel more confident in my looks? That's kind of fucked up. Anyway, back to flesh. If I become epistolary friends with someone through my blog, I share my real name first, then later my pictures (through Facebook or Flickr), because I understand the value of putting names and faces with personas. Usually I ask blog friends I meet if I match their expectations. Usually they tell me I'm only somewhat similar to my blog, but exactly like my emails. Apparently, I have less authenticity than you do, although I have previously used my blog to talk about academic stuff, which doesn't translate to wild hand gestures and fast-paced speech. Also, I overshare in emails but only mildly share on blog. One time someone said that I was prettier than they expected. I did not know how to take that.

PS: sorry for the insanely long post. I figured that since I have insomnia, I'd respond now before getting back to work for the week and going out of town this weekend. I look forward to your response though!
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