"Philosophical Percolations: All The Philosophy That's Not Fit to Print." (just a mock-up so far). It will be a collaborative blog with 10-20 authors (currently we have 13), that will open on May 13th. We plan to have new weird philosophy, for the Internet for free every day. There will be philosophy of professional wrestling. There will be speculative realism. There will be analytics and continentals, thinking together! You know, mass hysteria! It'll be great. We plan to be weird, be diverse, and disagree with each other. We're going to try to keep blatant politics, news of the profession, and anonymous philoso-troll comments to a bare minimum. And no advertising, but lots of pictures to illustrate our points. Jon Cogburn, in particular likes adding old punk & post-punk videos to his posts.
However, it means that I'm going to be writing a lot of philosophy over there rather than over here. I'm not planning to close this blog down, at least short term. I may still throw up a webcomic review or recipe every now and then. But I suspect that from May on, for the rest of 2015, I'll probably post over there a LOT, and over here a very little. I'm hoping to continue to post philosophy, and probably poetry, here for the rest of March and April though. I'll certainly announce it again with far more links, once the other blog actually opens. That concludes our service announcement, carry on folks.
Friday, March 20, 2015
I've had conversations several times in the last few weeks, with several people about slacktivism, and the sense that the bar on political activity has become so low, that the smallest things seem political, and many seem to channel their political impulses into the smallest of things. For some this is a dire sign, the trivializing of the important. The decline of real activism into the merest shade of symbolic action, the laziest of all possible protests. For others, this is a sign of political activity adapting to the tastes and communication styles of a new generation, of a regeneration of political engagement, where being political is no longer confined to the halls of money and power, but animates regular people in their daily lives. For others, the politicization of all things feels like a stifling interference, where ideas from the humanities attempt to but their nose into the sciences or business worlds, or other places where they seem sometimes like intruders.
I have many mixed feeling myself, but want to defend some kinds and styles of slacktivism, in some contexts. Last night, at my open night poetry reading, I read one of my own fumbling poems on the topic, and another reader I'm slowly getting to know, replied to me with a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. It was just exactly right. It has gotten me re-thinking.
But before I get to the poem, I need a brief detour through “political theology.” American understanding of political theory usually make sense of the foundations of the modern state in terms of figures like Locke, Hobbes, Hume and Smith, even Machiavelli, who turned away from religion and tried to ground things in talk of contracts. But there is a strain of political theory, especially in Europe, from Carl Schmitt to Jurgen Habermas and then to living folks like Giorgio Agemben, Ernesto Laclau, or Paul Kahn (many of them atheists), exploring the idea that to quote Schmitt “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” In this style of seeing, often called “political theology,” the foundation of the state is not a prior contract, but a prior act of sacrifice - and the state itself is not an agreement among equals constantly being re-negotiated as much as it is a sacred thing inherited from the past providing a framework within which we attempt to find meaning for our collective activities.
In this style I thinking, I suspect that slacktivism looks suspiciously like a political analog of what in theology is called “cheap grace.” (A term and idea coined by African-America pastor, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, popularized by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship.) “Cheap grace” is the idea of trying to receive the blessing of sanctity without having undergone the burdens of authentic discipleship. Even if the grace is freely given, it seems somehow a poor or immature response to it to take blessing and move on with one's life, rather than being deeply transformed by it into someone trying to “live up to it.” Enjoying the benefits of the past struggles of political activists who toiled hard and in many cases “sacrificed” for the current imperfect political regime, and responding in turn with slacker-activism, can feel intuitively like “desecrating” past sacrifices or real discipleship/activism.
But being authentically political has to involve, eventually, integrating politics into one's whole life. Not just how you vote, but how you spend money, how you talk, how you act in big things and small. But that means that your political convictions should manifest somehow in even little, easy, trivial, dayly things. Which hashtags you use, for instance. As always, someone who does small things well, but screws up the big ones, is criticizable, and often a hypocrite, and hypocrisy is especially loathsome when mixed with arrogance or self-righteousness. But I have a lot of sympathy with a humble hypocrite, who knows they don't live up to their highest ideals, yet, and is trying and failing to be better than they are. And that is true for politics, ethics, or religion. This is one of the reasons that a culture of calling-outneeds to be replaced in most cases with on of calling-in, where you criticize well-meaning failures privately rather than publicly and thereby risking alienating potential allies to show off your own self-righteousness. We want to avoid the hypocrisy of taking the easy way out, and then letting ourselves off the hook, but we also want to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good, too. In this fascinating analysis of fragmentation on the left I'm a moderate on the suspicion vs solidarity axis.
If slacktivism is all we do to try to build intentional bridges between ourself and our world, then that is pretty pathetic. But if it is one aspect of what we do, that is another story. Similarly, I'm pretty skeptical of my ability to have real effects on the decisions of the wealthy and the halls of power. But I have some power at least over my daily life, and the people I personally interact with. These minimal interactions - trying to be polite, friendly, and respectful to people; trying to cut people some slack; trying to gently encourage thought and growth; trying to help people see the best in themselves; trying to get my own house in better order; this is where the personal and political meet, and is the sphere where I feel the least hopeless. And a lot of that manifests on the internet, because that is where I do most of my socializing.
“Children of the Age”
We are children of our age,
it's a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
All affairs – yours, ours, theirs -
are political affairs.
Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.
Whatever you say reverberates,
Whatever you don't say speaks for itself.
So either way you're talking politics.
Even when you take to the woods,
you're taking political steps
on political grounds.
Apolitical poems are also political,
|Our political moon|
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
and though it troubles the digestion
it's a question, as always, of politics.
To acquire a political meaning
you don't even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarrel over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.
Meanwhile, people perished,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.
-by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, 1988
All human affairs, and even many things beyond the immediately human, are political whether we like it or not. Who we are personally is political, even in our genes and our past. We don't have to focus on the political aspect of our experience all the time, thematizing it. Sometimes we can look at the sunset or do math or sip tea while watching TV. These things are political too, it's part of the background of their being, but we don't always have to focus on it. We DO have to admit it to ourselves, acknowledge that self and world and others are all linked in various ways whether we like it or not. Politics may feel intrusive in some domains, but it is already there whether we like it or not, it is just a matter of if we can overcome our self-deception enough to face it squarely from time to time. We do have to find ways to live our lives within this interlinking. We do have to acknowledge that people are perishing while we arbitrate life and death, but that this is not new, or unique to us. That there isn't a quick fix, or cheap grace or slacktivist solution to the conundrums of interconnection. But slacktivism may well be one part of navigating this terrain well. I still have good hope that there is room for ourselves to unfold within this space of interconnection, well, some of ourselves … sigh.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
So I'm no expert on Street Art but one of the very first ideas in the philosophical reflection on Street Art is that Street Art and Public Art are not the same thing. There was recently a conference on the philosophy of Street Art, and a philosopher I like Christy Mag Uighir has been posting a lot about reflections on Street Art. I'd like to summarize a few of her ideas, and then add one tentative one of my own - that there seems to be a real space in my community for art that is in between traditional Street Art and traditional Public Art.
|Mural by Keith Haring in Barcelona|
The idea of taking art out of the galleries, museums and places of the rich, and into places not usually associated with art is an old one. Indeed, the high art vs folk art distinction has always traded on these tensions to some extent, with plenty of 20th century artists intentionally playing with the possibilities. Take this basic idea, move it into urban contexts, add some graffiti, and it starts getting called Street Art in the 1980s, with artists like Keith Haring, or Jean Basquiat, or more recently Banksy, becoming classic examples. Street Art often had strong political, activist tones, often a strong sense of subversion. The sense that the art was illicit, dangerous to actually perform, and subject to official opposition and reprisals if the artist was caught was definitely part of the aesthetic. Themes of poverty, and racial and sexual minorities have been important parts of the style since the 80s, when black folk and queer folk often felt they had no access to more traditional art worlds. Traditional graffiti is the most iconic form, but there have been lots of others for decades, stencil art, murals, “lock on” street sculptures, etc.
|Statue of Max Ehremann, a piece of clear Public Art in Terre Haute|
“Public Art” is an old idea, but the current phrase has a lot to do with the New Deal policies of the 1930s, and the American experience of publicly funded art since then. Since the 1970s, “Public Art” has largely been about getting funding at the local level to spend money on site-specific sculptures and installations that will be aimed at the public. The results are often displayed, “on the streets” as it were, but have official imprimatur, with committees gathering funding and commissioning artists to create the installations. These are, in a sense, the modern descendants of the architecture of monuments and public fountains and such.
At the most basic level, Street Art, whether visual graffiti art or busking or poetry stenciled in alleyways is about making art even where and when it is not allowed, and Public Art is about obtaining sanction and funding, and being involved in the bureaucracy of site design and zoning and such to gain legitimate permission to put art somewhere public. Illegality, or at least some sort of illicitness, is at the heart of the style, and probably is central to the definition of Street Art, whereas, some sense of being officially sponsored, is at the heart of the style, and probably is central to the definition of Public Art. All well and good, and well explored by thinkers and artists before me, one more side track, before we get to my claim.
Christy Mag Uidhir makes a distinction between Street Art (form) and Street Art (content).
“Street Art (Form)—Art in some Street Medium
Works having certain formal, compositional, material conditions mediated by certain contexts or relations (spatial, legal, social, cultural, communal, political, racial, proprietary, self-referential, etc.) necessary for the making and appreciation of works of that form: e.g., Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Installation Art, ...Street Art
Street Art (Content)—Art about the Street
Works having certain contents, specifically those within the narrow class of contents identified by reference to, relevance for, comment on those issues, contexts, relations, and environments considered saliently Street: e.g., Political Art, Feminist Art, Religious Art, ...Street Art”
So, for example, Sassafras Lowery's novel “Roving Pack” about homeless queer and trans teens, or the anthology she edited “Kicked out” about teens being kicked out of their homes, are surely examples of Street Art (content), in that they are manifestly about life on the streets, and all of the dodgy legality, underclassness, subversion and such that goes with that, but they are just as surely NOT Street Art (form), in that their forms are traditional novel, and published anthology of writings, neither of which are particularly “street.” We could easily enough make the same distinction with regards to Public Art. The mosaics by the banks of the Wabash in Fairbanks Park here in Terre Haute, are clearly Public Art (form), as small scale permanent installation/monuments on public land, but their content is largely about local biology. Myke Flaherty's “Excuse Me, Terre Haute” is clearly Public Art (content), it's a song about public life, that he was trying to get to become the official city song, but he never succeeded, and the form is pretty standard studio re-mix music.
The thing is, when I try to think of examples of Street Art and Public Art in my own large town/small city of Terre Haute, I can think of several clear examples of each, but lots and lots of examples, that appear to be in between the two extremes - art that is aimed at the populace at large, but is neither clearly illegal or illicit, nor clearly sponsored by official channels.
Take street music. If a street musician attempts to busk anywhere downtown or on campus, under normal conditions, day or night, they get hustled away by the cops and maybe fined (Street Art - form). If they would like to play on Saturday mornings at the Farmer's Market, they have to schedule ahead of time with the market mistress, but are allowed (Public art – form). Similarly, big events downtown that get permits (like the Blueberry Festival, or Downtown Block Party, or Straussenfest) often schedule musicians (still Public Art - form). But occasionally, a busking musician will set up near the entrance to the Baesler's Supermarket during the day. I've seen at least 4 different ones, including one I sorta know. The police won't hassle them as long as they are on Baesler's property rather than the city sidewalk, and Baesler's itself neither sponsors them, nor asks them to leave as long as they aren't causing a problem. Their activity is neither sponsored nor illicit.
Or consider graffiti; Terre Haute has plenty of graffiti of the tagging variety. And some occasionally clearly has artistic goals rather than merely being tagging, and so seems like Street Art. Some of it is clearly local, others cases are on the sides of the railroad cars TerreHaute is famous for. Up in 12 points, one night last in Sept someone graffitied the heck out of the old corner store, except that it was clearly artistic in style and abstract in form with no clear message. Well, when the “graffiti buster” task force went to clear it up, the owner objected and admitted that HE had done it tohis own building claiming it's not graffiti “it's art … I mean there are some things going on here but if you look down Lafayette you see empty building after empty building. But I own this building, it’s my canvas,” - So uhm, is it Street Art when the rightful owner does it to their own building? Surely not. Is it Public Art, when a public task force tries to eliminates it, but then backs off? Surely not. We need some middle category.
My own main yearly artistic project, seems like another in-between case, helping with Subterreanean – a localist poetry, art, literature 'zine, put together by volunteers once a year. The cities other three literary mags are all sponsored by the English departments of three of the local colleges, and are given away free at the yearly launch party and sold for tiny amounts the rest of the year. In a sense they are Public Art literature, certainly at least the one paid for by the public university is. Ours likewise is given away at the launch party, and sold for a tiny amount the rest of the year, but the closest we have to a sponsoring organization is “th' poetry asylum.” We are neither licit nor illicit, neither sponsored nor opposed, neither Street Art nor Public Art, but with ties to both worlds.
There are several other local examples that seem to me to be in the grey areas between Public Art and Street Art. Eames Demetrios made an installation, that imitates the style of public historical plaques, but for a fantastic setting. And the one in Terre Haute is in a back alley downtown, a location more natural for Street Art, than Public Art or private art. There are culinary activities in our town that are neither legal nor illegal, (such as the milk share we run) or of regularly disputed legality (such as the perennial fights between the local health dept. and the Farmer's Market about exactly what the Health dept. has the authority to forbid and what it cannot, it's odd to think that Candice's relishes might be somewhere between Street Art and Public Art, but I think it is so). Or the tables and walls at Coffee Grounds, where generations have added graffiti and carvings with knife and pen, but the management seems to carefully walk the middle ground of neither promoting nor removing the graffiti … Or George's Cafe were doodled place-mats are occasionally taped to the wall, and a quick scan shows kid art, college student doodling, and art student apprentice-fine art haphazardly mixed, along with greasy spoon standards and Lebanese cuisine …
I don't really have a good term for this hazy middle ground, the best I've come up with so far is Community Art, but that certainly has problems. And I see why it hasn't been the focus of much philosophical reflection. Without sponsorship from public money or real private money or the gallery system, this style of art is inherently amateur. Without the edginess of real illicitness, or the population densities of the deeply urban setting, neither fame nor "subvertising" success are particularly likely. In essence the territory is a form of contemporary folk art, except that unlike say quilting, or painting Warhammer miniatures, part of the point of the art is to be public. Mag Uighir mentions an argument that yarnbombing isn't really Street Art "the unavailability of its materials within urban areas, the insufficiently destructive or permanent nature of its application, the identity of its practitioners (educated, upper middle class white women), the de facto legality of its practice (low risk of arrest and prosecution), etc." OK, but yarnbombing is at least another great example of what I am calling Community Art. Just as we could make a distinction between form and content for Street Art or Public Art (probably not a perfect or hard and fast one, but at least a clarifying communication one), we can make a similar distinction for Community Art. Some art is about life in community, that is neither as opposed as street life, nor as supported as public life, and that might take more familiar forms. But some art takes it's form from community life, and might comment on community life or might comment on something else.
Community Art in my sense is at the intersection of amateur Public Art and low-risk Street Art. It is where we have the bits of art designed for public consumption, but without money or officialdom as prime motivators. It is motivated instead I suspect by, well a spirit of community, or of wanting our shared spaces to be enjoyable despite our lackluster means. It is where the middle class and the middle poor meet in an art world between Fine art and Guerrilla Art, at some visual equivalent of the neighborhood barbecue or local pizza joint ... It is the open mic nights and community gardens and take-one-leave-one library boxes. All the sorts of things that didn't exist in some towns I've lived in, and existed in spades in other towns I've lived in. Maybe I'm over-glorifying the mundane here, but I think that there really is a space, a weird sort of middle art, between Street Art and Public Art, a sort of moderate subversiveness for which my words fail, but my hopes continually come back to ...
Anyway, that's the idea I'm throwing into this philosophy of art debate, any thought?
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Towards a new Obituary for Gayle Starr
Gayle Starr died sometime around 1969 in rural Montana. She had been working as a waitress. My old colleague, Heather Branstetter, found the initial report of her death, as a dateless and contextless newspaper clipping in a file, while doing historical research on rural Idaho, and commented that today “we would probably write a different narrative for Gayle Starr’s obituary.” I did a little more digging and found a few more articles and details of Gayle's life, but still not enough to give her a proper obituary. Still I keep thinking about her, guessing about her life, wondering about it, sorta amazed by it.
Gayle was around 50 when she died, and was born in 1919, although I can find no clue as to where, or who her family were. However, we do know that Gayle was assigned as male at birth and given the name Herbert C. Upton. Gayle's upbringing and youth are unclear too. But by the age of 42, in 1961, Gayle was an ex-convict who had done time in both the New Mexico and the Michigan State Prisons on convictions of larceny, forgery, and fraudulent checks. In 1961, Gayle lived in Flathead County, MT and worked as a barmaid, in Essex, MT. Essex is a tiny train stop on the edge of Glacier National Park, with few amenities mostly for tourists passing through. Even the county seat of Kalispell isn't exactly big. She was living successfully as a woman for at least 9 months. In one version of the story, she was arrested by the county Sheriff “after a tip by an area resident that things were not what they seemed where 'Gayle Starr' was concerned.” This arrest made it into the local paper, the Kalispell Daily Inner Lake, and she was held pending a psychiatric hearing. Another version of the story, has her being arrested after “area residents filed complaints of disturbances and threats with the sheriff's office” but the real problem emerges when Gayle “was growing a beard today in the county jail while awaiting arraignment for vagrancy and possibly other charges as yet unspecified.”
She was sent to the State Hospital for “psychiatric examination.” But the State Hospital “failed to find” "insanity to warrant commitment,” and further “previous charges were dropped on the basis of the psychiatrist's report.” Gayle was released back to Kalispell, a month after arrest, a free person, albeit one whose conviction record and birth name had been revealed in the local paper of the county of 30,000ish.
|Downtown Kalispell 1974|
By 1969, Gayle was living in Mineral County, MT, at the Guy Ghilheri Ranch in Haugan, MT. That county had only 3000ish people. Gayle had worked at the West End cafe as a waitress for over a year, at the time of her death. According to reports Gayle wore women's clothing, used heavy make up, and none of the locals had a clue that Gayle was given a male name at birth. The title of Gayle's obituary is “Death Reveals a Masquerade” and it assumes that Herbert C. Upton was the real person who died, and was male, and that Gayle Starr was merely the “feminine name” that “he” used. The file my old friend found the 1969 clipping in was historical notes marked “Residents of Shoshone Co” (a county in rural ID, that borders Mineral county, MT and had about 20,000 people in 1969), so odds are that Gayle lived there too at some point.
|The Silver Bar, Haugan, MT in the 1960s|
Yet Gayle certainly lived publicly as a woman, for months or years at a time, over the course of at least 8 years. Despite the name Gayle Starr getting negative publicity in nearby Kalispell, that was the name that she choose to use for herself over the following years. That sure sounds like it was a genuine identity for her, rather than merely an alias of convenience. The only Herbert C. Upton in the 1950 or 1940 census (near as I can tell, this could be my limits as a researcher) is a significantly older fellow living in Mass. So the person named Herbert C. Upton at birth, probably wasn't going publicly by that name already by the age of 21. It would have been easy for the psychiatrist at Montana's state hospital to have Gayle committed, that he didn't probably means he thought Gayle was a threat to no one, and also wasn't delusional. Similarly, the Sheriff could probably have sent Gayle to prison again for forgery. Given that Gayle's previous convictions included forgery and fraudulent check writing, it's tempting to guess that Gayle had previously attempted to live a publicly female life, and got caught and had the book thrown at her.
The picture that emerges from these few scattered reports, at least in my imagination, is a person who struggled their entire adult life to live in an identity and gender other than the one given them at birth. Someone who paid dearly for this, doing multiple stints in prison, and then living as an ex-con. Yet someone who kept being Gayle Starr, whenever she could, in a culture that definitely did not understand or approve of this. Living humbly as a barmaid and waitress, in the fading mountain west. Moving from small town to small town occasionally, probably looking for work, but also trying to start over again and again when their secret was revealed. Humble, brave, and relentlessly true to themselves despite real dangers, that's a mix I can respect.
Musing and Questions on Gayle Starr
1969 was the year that the Stonewall Riots happened in New York City. The contrast between the queens and transvestites of the big city, and the wandering rural trans folk is poignant to me, as a trans person that has never lived in a real city, or felt a part of trans community.
Evidence suggests that the vast majority of trans folk choose to move to large cities, and large cities have been centers of trans culture throughout the 20th century and still today. Yet, I'm stayin' here in Terre Haute, which is a bit bigger that Kalispell, MT, but has far more in common with Kalispell or Wallace ID, than it does with New York, San Francisco, or Quebec. I often wonder how life is different for rural or small town trans folk, than it is for big city trans folk. I think there may be advantages to being small town trans as well as disadvantages. It's hard to find kindred spirits. But people are polite to me here, even when their eyes suggest they disapprove. I suspect the anonymity of the big city takes that away ...
Did Gayle know anyone else in a similar situation to her? Was Gayle a natural drifter, or did she feel forced to move? Was there really no one in Mineral Co, who heard about Gayle's publicity in Flathead Co. a few years earlier? Or did some folks know and simply not mind, and not want to make trouble for her?
Why did the state psychiatrist choose not to have Gayle committed for Transvestism, which was certainly in the DSM at the time? Why did the Sheriff decide not to press any charges, including transvestism, or forgery? Were there authority figures who were covertly trying to create space for trans people to be themselves in the 60s despite the laws of the time?
Gayle's forgery and fraudulent checking charges, were those just punishments for trying to live as a woman, or had she done more than just provide cover for herself? Were charges like that regularly used to punish trans people? If we looked back through the fraudulent checking and forgery convictions would we find lots of cases where the only fraud someone was guilty of, was trying to be themselves? Were there other techniques that were used to backdoor punish trans folk, while trying to obscure what was really going on? Or maybe everyone back then knew that fraudulent checking sometimes meant kiting checks, and sometimes just meant trying to open a checking account under a non-birth gender and getting caught. The mafia famously owned lots of gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn, was organized crime helping trans folk create fake IDs, perhaps?
How did Gayle think of herself? Did she understand herself as a “female impersonator,” as a “queen,” as a “transvestite?” Several of the newspaper blurbs use the term “masquerader,” was that a technical term of the time? Would Gayle have thought of herself in those terms? Christine Jorgensen was a sensation in 1952, when Gayle was 33. Did Gayle think of herself as transsexual? Did she dream of surgery? Hormone therapy became available in the US during the 50s and 60s, but was pretty tightly controlled. Did Gayle know about that? Did she apply for it? Was she rejected? There is no mention of hormone pills in any of the news stories about her.
Who outted Gayle to the Sheriff and why? What all am I missing from Gayle's story? What would it be like to be gender non-conforming in your heart in the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s? I've meet folks from the 70s and 80s and on. But in the 50s, even open minded experts like Kinsey or Benjamin were barely wrapping their head around transgenderism. Did the queer folk in the streets, or drifting from town to town, have a better understanding of their own situation from up close? Or were they lost, trying to make sense of themselves with old categories that barely fit? Did Gayle have experiences that haven't even been hinted at in the few articles I've found? What did she do during WWII, for example? She'd have been 22 or 23 in 1942 when the US entered the war, but perhaps she was already living as a female by then. Did she have long term relationships during her life? Kids? How did she relate with her family?
There are so many things I don't know about Gayle Starr and her life, and she's probably not my kin or anything, but I keep coming back and musing about her life, and how people adapt to their times ... The Chevalier D'Eon is just a storybook character to me, but Gayle Starr seems like a person I can almost but not quite relate to, like a great-aunt. Someone from before Stonewall, but after Jorgensen. Everyone else has been thinking about Ferguson and Selma recently, and I certainly see why, but I keep drifting back to thinking about this waitress from Montana I never met ...