Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

“One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: - it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.”  - Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

Last weekend, I went to see I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck's 2016 documentary film based on an unfinished literary project by the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin intended to write a book linking the lives and assassinations of three Black American leaders, all personally known to him: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The film takes this idea as a starting point, but does not attempt to carry out Baldwin’s project in cinematic form. Rather, it uses documentary footage to build up a portrait of Baldwin himself, and operates as a vehicle for his eloquence as witness (his word) of race relations in America.

Partway into the film, over footage of lynchings and violent suppression of protests by civil rights activists, we hear an excerpt from one of Baldwin’s essays. He says that people sometimes think that organized violence of whites against blacks is an expression of power; in reality, it is an expression of weakness, an almost hysterical response to morally justified resistance from the subjugated. The black man may hate the white for what has been done to his people, but the white man dreads the black. He fears revenge, but more abstractly, he feels the need to ward off the moral threat the perspective of the subjugated poses for white identity. On Baldwin’s analysis (as I have understood it, possibly mixed with that of my old philosophy professor, Etienne Balibar) this dread is what motivates continuing violence against the less powerful, as well as the relentless superficiality, the insidious “innocence” of mass culture in America – and not just America.

Late in the film, an Australian philosopher from Harvard makes an unlikely appearance. He is a guest on an American TV talk-show, along with Baldwin. The philosopher (a white man, needless to say) says he doesn’t know why there’s so much fuss made about being black or white, and urges Baldwin to consider that as an intellectual and a writer, he is likely to have more in common with other intellectuals and writers, than with other blacks, per se. Baldwin reacts with articulate anger, describing the potentially lethal threat faced daily by blacks in Harlem, where Baldwin grew up. His passionate words foreground the culpable ignorance of the Australian intellectual, his blithe disregard of the privilege that allows him to consider race irrelevant. The Australian himself appears nonplussed. No doubt he feels misunderstood, and if his antipodean status has left a crack of insecurity in his Harvard philosopher’s self-assurance, perhaps unfairly maligned. The encounter is a small example of the great difficulty of communication across entrenched power relations.

On a personal level, the scene reminded me of a philosophy staff seminar at the University of Sydney, where I presented a paper on “The Powerlessness of the Powerful: Riots as Counter-Violence.” Although I did not draw directly on Baldwin’s work, my argument was in keeping with his approach. I proposed that the riots that periodically break out in Australian Aboriginal communities could be interpreted as a form of protest against institutionalized racism, one which often provokes tellingly disproportionate displays of “power” from a state that appears powerless (or unwilling) to address the underlying problems of race relations in this country.

At the end of my presentation, a highly successful philosopher of physics raised his hand. Instead of engaging directly with my argument, he told a story from his student days, when he shared a dorm room with an Englishman and a man from South Africa. He said the student from South Africa was very nice and in other respects an intelligent person, but when he spoke about race relations in South Africa, would come out with shockingly racist remarks. The speaker and his English friend were mutually appalled by the South African’s apparently unreflective racism, but hesitated to confront him about it.

At this stage, I imagined the point of this story might be to illustrate how difficult it can be for privileged individuals who are immersed in a culture of institutionalized racism to bring themselves to recognise this, and perhaps how hard it is to challenge this conditioned ignorance, or “innocence,” in a way that doesn’t simply provoke a reactive, self-protective hardening of the denial involved – related to the dread of which Baldwin speaks. I was nodding agreement, indulging the speaker’s expansive, story-telling way of expressing these ideas - until it emerged that in fact, the purpose of his story was to allow him to compare me and my presentation to the nice South African and his guilelessly racist remarks. Like him, my interlocutor suggested, I clearly had no idea how racist my paper might appear to my more sophisticated colleagues. But he could see that I was a nice person, and meant well.

It was an astonishing put down. The man made no attempt to explain what about my paper struck him as racist and at the time, I was too taken aback to demand that he justify his attack with argument. Instead, I mumbled about how I had previously presented the same material to an audience including an Aboriginal legal academic and several others whose own work engaged directly with similar issues, and it had been well received. Later, I wondered why he had felt the need to cut me down like that – had I pressed upon a sore point in speaking about the powerlessness of the powerful to this powerful man?

I imagine that if he had been pressed to articulate his objection, my critic's argument might have resembled that of the Australian philosopher who told Baldwin to stop making such a fuss about race, and concentrate on more intellectual matters, perhaps by positing an Archimedean point outside space and time from which to solve properly philosophical problems. His additional through-the-looking-glass cleverness was to imply that to speak about racial power relations in the elite and almost exclusively white space of a philosophy staff seminar at the University of Sydney was not only of dubious intellectual value, but was itself racist.

(How so? If you don’t already understand, it cannot be explained to you, my dear.  Now let me wind my worsted two or three times around your neck, you wicked little kitty, just to see how it looks.)

At the end of the film, Baldwin declares that he is not a negro, but a man, and challenges white America to ask itself why it needs to define him as a negro. What weakness, what dread, in the hearts of the powerful drives them, drives us, to perform definitive acts of violence and cruelty against the less powerful? If we could let ourselves focus on that dread, that terror – if we had the courage to experience it lucidly – perhaps communication about these things would become easier, and less necessary.

Image result for i am not your negro
James Baldwin (1924-1987)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Acting vegan

During July I went vegan as part of a fundraiser called “Dry July.” Dry July has been going for ten years, raising funds for services that support cancer patients in Australia. As the name suggests, the idea is to stop drinking for the month in order to inspire your friends and family to support the cause. When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning to do this, she spotted a problem: “But Juzzeau, you don’t drink.” Oh, yeah. 

I decided to up the ante, and go vegan as well. I thought of this not only as a way to make the fundraising effort more compelling, but also as a chance to try out a lifestyle experiment that appealed to me. When I stopped drinking alcohol altogether for a period of time, I found the experience very interesting. Since I’ve never been a big drinker, the main challenge was social: dealing with reactions when I refused the offer of a drink. Early on I felt awkward about this, but most people didn’t bat an eyelid. When there was a reaction, I noticed that it was mainly due to a reflex of self-examination on the part of others, rather than any real scrutiny of me. In time, people started confiding in me about their own relationship with alcohol, including struggles and doubts around this. I felt as if a door had opened, letting me see into an aspect of experience that had previously been hidden. It also felt good to practice resisting the (largely internalized) pressure to conform to social norms around drinking. Going vegan promised similar benefits and challenges.

When I began my vegan July, I initially assumed that vegan friends would approve of this venture. One did send enthusiastic messages of encouragement, as well as “motivating” information about animal cruelty in the dairy industry (the scare-quotes indicate my sense of the complex impact this kind of information has on the desire to make ethical changes). However, when I made an appeal for vegan recipes and tips, another friend retorted that all her recipes were very yummy, so not the kind of thing that would inspire people to pay money. With the shock of a suddenly altered focus, I realised that going vegan for a month to raise funds for cancer patients might strike a committed vegan as offensive - a bit like deciding to go Christian for a month to raise funds for animal welfare, or Jewish for a few weeks to raise funds for, I don’t know, the local life-saving club. Good cause, sure, but the end doesn’t necessarily excuse the profane ignorance implied by the means…

Veganism is not a religion, of course, but in some respects it does resemble one. It involves a strong code of ethics, and at least for some vegans, to consume animal products comes pretty close to sinning: not just wrong, but horrifying and disgusting, due to the ways animals are treated in the process of creating these products. On the flipside, to refrain from using animal products can resemble a religious process of purification and ascetic restraint. Personally, I find this ascetic dimension attractive, drawn as I am to monasteries and monastics, but it can lead to arcane discussions, where an all-or-nothing attitude condemns honey as just as polluting as bacon, and figs are regarded as illicit because the fruit is fertilized by a wasp that dies in the process and is then absorbed into the fig.

There is also a proselytizing side to the movement, with some vegans actively seeking to convert others to the cause, in the interests of reducing cruelty to animals. The counterpart to this is that to be vegan is to be part of a strong sub-culture, a community based on shared values and a distinctive way of life. As for any social group, there are rules that define insiders and outsiders. In hindsight, I realised that signing up for a month-long vegan challenge was an ostentatious badge of my outsider status, rather than a smart way to sidle into the group.

During July, in between grazing on vegan treats, and reflecting on my ambivalence about participating in social groups, I also read the wonderful gothic thriller by Matthew Lewis, The Monk. Its opening chapter is prefaced by a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:

            - Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; Scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone.

Food is barely mentioned again, which was probably fortunate for my vegan aspirations, given that the novel is all about succumbing to sensual temptation. Via many twists and turns, the plot traces the downfall of a brilliant and charismatic, but excessively strict Abbot. Early on, he is seduced by a novice who turns out to be a woman in disguise, but a woman with so-called masculine qualities: she is highly intelligent, resourceful, and independent.

Noting that Lewis never married or had children, his biographers have speculated that he may have been gay; the fact that his Abbot quickly gets into an illicit sexual relationship with a woman who not only dresses, but also behaves like a man may lend some support to this idea. Then again, it may simply indicate that Lewis appreciated women’s capacities for intelligence, resourcefulness, and independence. In any case, as D. L. Macdonald points out, to identify Lewis as a homosexual would be anachronistic, given that the word was not used as a noun until 1912. Foucault suggests that although the recognisable social existence of homosexuals predated this linguistic development, it is a relatively recent phenomenon:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more that the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage… (History of Sexuality, 1: 43)

This can be seen as one consequence of the more general rise of concern with personal identity and responsibility that occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of European history and intensified at the time of the French revolution. This was when The Monk was written (it was completed in 1795), and also when the noun responsibility first appeared in both the English and the French language. From this perspective, the novel can be seen as a highly engaging, and still relevant meditation on anxieties about sexuality, conceived as a dangerous matter of individual and political responsibility, tightly linked to personal identity.

It strikes me that the historical shift from imputability or accountability for acts, to responsibility for one’s person, is also relevant to the social complexities of becoming vegan (which incidentally is a very recent possibility: the term was coined by an English animal rights advocate in 1944). It is one thing to refrain from consuming animal products; it is another to defend or claim the identity of “being” a vegan. However, in a social space dominated by identity politics and the concept of personal responsibility, it is near impossible to do the first without engaging with judgments in relation to the second.

Having said this, during my July experiment, "acting" vegan turned out to be surprisingly easy, thanks to the fact that many businesses have identified the vegan as a potential consumer. Capitalism is remarkably nonjudgmental; it doesn’t care about your ethical commitments, or lack of them, or whether you’re a true believer or a heretic in the eyes of any particular social group. As a consequence, vegan options were available everywhere I ate out, from the chicken shop in Ashburton to the Ethopian restaurant up the road. I didn’t strike any incomprehension or hostility in response to requests for vegan food in restaurants. On the contrary, my tentative inquiries about dairy content were often met with the question, “Are you vegan?” followed by a ready list of what they could offer me; in one Thai restaurant in Darlinghurst, I was presented with a separate menu for vegans. And since I live within walking distance of Terra Madre, a “health food store and wellness clinic” in Northcote, aka nirvana for foody hipsters, I had ready access to multiple products catering specifically to the vegan market, such as “Premium Omega-3 table spread” and vegan cheese (truly a contradiction in terms).

In reflecting on the ease of shifting to a vegan diet in this place and time, it occurred to me that catering for vegans may have become more economically viable and socially acceptable since the rise in food allergies, since this means that more people have dietary restrictions that intersect with vegan dietary choices, but are not linked to any challenging ethical positions or minority social identities. On the other hand, perhaps the increasing adoption of a growing range of dietary restrictions is not merely a consequence of health pathology, but an expression of hunger for ascetic restraint and simplicity in this over-stimulated, consumerist century. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Nobody Knows

My exploration of the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda continued last week with a viewing of his 2004 feature film Nobody Knows. The film is based on a real case from 1988 of a family of four children abandoned by their mother to fend for themselves over a period of about nine months, in a small apartment in Tokyo. Koreeda’s version is restrained, leaving out the more shocking details of the true story. As one reviewer puts it:

Koreeda possesses a superior talent for pulling on the heartstrings without ever forcing overt ‘sadness’. Nobody Knows is a story told through close-ups with no tears shed and no dramatic outbursts. Because who needs drama when you can linger for a second too long on those tiny shoes and shatter your audience into a million tiny pieces? (Amy Bowker)

Yûya Yagira as Akira in Nobody Knows
All the children in the film are engaging, but the film encourages us to identify and suffer most acutely with the eldest, Akira, a 12-year-old boy who is given the responsibility of caring for his three younger half-siblings (each child has a different, indifferent father). He valiantly struggles to fill the parental role his mother and her lovers have abandoned, although in some ways, his precocious maturity shows most poignantly when he attempts to remain a child in spite of the burdens placed upon him. Successes in joining in the conventional activities of other boys of his age are brief, however, and each episode of early adolescent exploration or pleasure is rapidly followed by further disintegration of the fragile order at home.

Having come across the psychological term “parentified child,” I initially assumed that this boy, Akira, was a classic, albeit extreme example of this type – a child forced to take on the role of parent, quite literally, due to the failure or inability of their parents to do so. However, as I subsequently discovered, in the literature on family systems, parentification is specifically defined in terms of an emotional role reversal, in which a parent looks to a child to meet their emotional needs, e.g. for affection and intimacy, approval and reassurance, stability and control, because they are not being met by a partner or by other peers. The child may enjoy playing this special role in a parent’s life, but it predicts relationship difficulties the child’s own later life, such as lack of trust that others will be there for them in times of distress, and fear of losing relationships because they cannot meet the other’s needs.

This can be distinguished from the situation when, often for economic reasons, a child is asked to assume a parental role with younger siblings while the parents are absent or otherwise occupied. In this case, the “helpful child” takes on the responsibility of caring for younger children, rather than that of meeting a parent’s emotional needs, and this responsibility has limits, so long as the parent remains clearly in the role of parent when they are present. In contrast to parentification, this experience is usually positive for a child’s development, predicting resilience, capability and personality strengths in later life (Teyber, 2006: 209-211).

In Nobody Knows, the character of Akira shows traits of both the parentified and the helpful child, making it hard to categorise him neatly in terms of this distinction. Early on we witness him attempting both to support and discipline his charmingly playful, but unhappy and impulsive mother. However, we are also made aware of the societal pressures that lead this single mother to hide the existence of her younger children when the family moves to a new apartment, and the difficulties that force her to rely on the older children to help her care for the younger ones. In this role, Akira shows himself to be remarkably capable and resourceful. 

As filmmaker Kenta McGrath observes, Koreeda displays great visual eloquence in evoking both resilience and loss:

As the film progresses, many of the filmed objects are recycled – symbolically by Koreeda, literally by the children – and assume new functions once their initial ones are fulfilled. Empty bowls of Cup Noodles house plants, unpaid bills turn into sketch pads, a suitcase becomes a coffin. Objects and gestures are what linger long after the film ends, reverberating as symbols of resilience, resourcefulness, misfortune, dreams put on hold. (Kenta McGrath)

The children’s creative improvisation, however heartening, is not sufficient to overcome the adversity they face. As it becomes evident that their mother will not return, Akira is left without any reliable adult to turn to when he is unable to meet the needs of the family alone. Not simply parentification in relation to his mother, but distressing prior encounters with the welfare system have engendered a deep lack of trust that others will be there for him or his siblings in times of need. And this lack of trust appears well-founded: although it is obvious that many adults become aware of the children’s plight, nobody chooses to “know” or to become more than superficially involved. This benign neglect leaves the children isolated amid prosperity, abandoned not only by their parents, but by a whole atomised society.

For me, Koreeda's the film elicited a painful moment of recognition: I realised I have witnessed this phenomenon here in Melbourne, many times over. Recently, I have been conducting interviews with people who are or have been homeless, asking them about their own resilience. They have recounted sometimes astonishing examples of the ability to keep going and adapt under conditions of extreme difficulty. Their stories, like that of Koreeda’s film, have also shown me that unsupported, individual resilience is not enough to protect people from intense suffering. The capacity to connect and be seen as part of the wider community in times of need is vital to survival, and this capacity crucially depends on the willingness of others – others in proximity, but also others in positions of power and influence – to pay attention, to “know” what is happening and to respond in a humane, flexible, responsible way. Too often, in these neoliberal capitalist times, such willingness seems to be in distressingly short supply.

It strikes me that the problem highlighted by Koreeda’s film, and by increasing rates of homelessness in a wealthy city like Melbourne, should not be seen as a failure of empathy or compassion. These virtues are attractive but cannot be compelled, and in any case, they are entirely absent neither in the film, nor in the experiences of my interviewees. Rather, when disaster strikes the vulnerable and their suffering is not mitigated by social supports, this is a failure of social responsibility.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

After Life

Last night at the Melbourne Cinematheque, I saw an unusual, thought-provoking film called After Life, made in 1998 by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. It depicts the first stage after death as a week-long stay in a run-down institution, where the newly dead are given three days to reflect on their lives and select a single memory. Once the choice is made, the staff in the institution recreate and film the memory. Finally, these memories are relived via a group screening at the end of the week, allowing each individual to “move on” immediately to a place where their chosen memory will be all they recall, with the rest of their life erased.

The first task for the staff is to gently guide each person in the process of reflecting on their life and choosing a single memory. There are no selection criteria or guidelines, although most people choose a moment of simple happiness. For some the source of joy is sensory – cherry plum blossoms falling in a garden, flying in a light aeroplane through clouds, the feeling of a warm breeze enveloping the body during a childhood bus ride. For others it is bound to relationships – the adoration of an older brother, a late moment of companionship within a long marriage. Some begin with conventional visions of pleasure and later abandon them for more authentic memories, although there are hints that they remain somewhat uncertain of the value and details of these as well. Most challenging for the staff are the few who cannot or will not choose a memory. Various reasons for this difficulty are implied: a view of life so dark that the person cannot retrieve a convincing moment of happiness; anxiety that nothing achieved during life was sufficiently significant or met early ambitions; the conviction that to remember everything is a burden of responsibility that must not be evaded.  
Hirokazu Koreeda (1962 - )
At the end of the film (which involved more than I have revealed here), the friend sitting next to me asked if I had been thinking about what my chosen memory would be. A few thoughts about this had crossed my mind, but mostly I had identified with the staff of the institution, rather than the dead people. The film reminded me of work I have been doing as a provisional psychologist in a big public hospital: listening, asking about, and reflecting upon patients’ accounts of their experience, attempting to create a space in which they can set aside pressures to conform to conventional expectations or judgments, discover what is important to them, and freely share those memories that rise to the surface of the vast flow of a life. Of course, the memories people share with a psychologist are not typically accounts of simple pleasure. Rather, people come because their connection with what brings joy has been clouded. They have memories that cause suffering or confusion, and need to be shared and allowed to shift in their meaning, rather than fixed for eternity. As in the case of the characters in the film who cannot choose a memory, the process also involves uncovering habits of thinking and feeling that tend to block the vital connection to positive experience.

Late in the film, one of the staff says he cannot bear to keep doing his work, constantly saying goodbye to people. This struck a chord, coming in a week in which I had final sessions with several clients. Many of them had shared life experiences of great passion and suffering during our work together. These exchanges had been very meaningful for me as well as them, creating a strong sense of connection between us. In most cases we were ending the therapeutic relationship, not from a sense of natural closure or completion of the work, but simply because my placement at the hospital is finishing next week. There was often a sense of loss and regret on both sides that we could not continue.

However, keeping therapeutic relationships short is recommended in contemporary clinical psychology. “Time-limited interventions,” like the time-pressured process depicted in the film, are in favour. During the day on which I saw After Life, I also went to a presentation on early intervention for young people with borderline personality disorder, given by Professor Andrew Chanen, Director of Clinical Services at Orygen in Melbourne. He explained that the treatment offered there is concluded after an agreed number of sessions, “no matter what” (his rather weary, care-worn expression intimated what this short phrase might encompass in the case of his client group). In part, this practice is based on the view that if a client does not benefit during the standard time of treatment, this indicates that the treatment approach is not working, and more of the same is unlikely to help. In this sense, the discipline is as much for the therapists as the clients, assisting them to let go of any ego-based need to prove they can help by holding onto a client who is not responding, and helping to ensure they do not get caught in relationship dynamics that are part of the client’s problems. 

Musing about this in the wake of the film, I imagined a variant on the theme of After Life, a story in which human lives are seen as opportunities for “time-limited interventions.” Guardian-angel-therapists (devas, perhaps) are given the predetermined span of a single lifetime to help their allocated humans relinquish the delusions and cravings that feed dissatisfaction, with the therapeutic goal of teaching them how to rest in contentment. No guarantees of success, and no extensions of time...