On Not Knowing

I used to have long hair. I started growing it when almost every other boy in my school had his hair short and spiky. Wanting to be different, or rather to accentuate the difference that was already there, to take control of it and throw it into sharper relief, I grew out my hair. But this had an unanticipated result: I was mistaken – not often, but with a certain regularity – for a woman. It happened in shops, in hotels, in public toilets, and once in a hot spring in Japan. It didn’t seem to matter how much stubble I had on my face, or how deep my voice was, I still got called “my darling” by burly young men in butcher’s shops; I still got directed to the women’s changing rooms. Once, in Nagoya, a person I’d just met was walking with me and a group of friends to the subway station. She’d been talking to someone else, but halfway down the hill she suddenly turned to me and asked “Man? Woman? Which one are you?”

The boldness of this demand was new to me. I was used to people making mistakes and then having to correct them myself, or raising an eyebrow and waiting for the penny to drop. But no one had straight-out asked me before whether I was a man or a woman. I said “I’m a man”, and she nodded and went back to her previous conversation. Now I wonder what would have happened if I’d said “Does it matter?” – not out of pedantry or spite, but because I wonder just how much our desire for knowledge, to know other people, is destructive. To know someone in this way is not to know of them, but rather to fit them into a category of knowledge, to understand them and their experiences. Their existence on a notecard, carefully filed: male, white, late twenties. What sort of existence could I have outside of these categories?

I don’t think that this type of demand is particularly unusual. It’s one that I’ve largely been spared from experiencing, and it decreased in frequency after I cut my hair short and grew a beard. But it is something that, for example, people of colour in majority-white societies have to deal with frequently; that age-old pattern of question and answer:

Where are you from?”

Here.”

No, I mean where are you really from?” or “Where are you from originally?” or “Where are your parents from?”

The “confusion” which leads to this series of questions is predicated on the perceived right of the speaker to know something, to know someone. The pull of this demand to put someone on a notecard causes people of colour to be asked these questions of origin, and it also means that people who have ambiguous gender presentation are asked “which” they are, as I was. This might seem like a simple question which is readily answered, and for me it was – I am cisgender, which is to say that my biological sex matches my gender; I am a man born in a body which society (in general) views as male.

I am not trans*. Written with a wildcard star, *, this term covers a wide variety of identities and expressions, including people who are neither male nor female, people who are both female and male at the same time, people whose body does not match their gender, and people who exist, as much as possible, outside the binary of female–male. This complexity notwithstanding, trans* people are often spoken about in terms of “passing”, which is to say, whether they are viewed by society in a more-or-less unambiguous way. This carves a simple path from one step to another, an A-B-C of gender reassignment that elides a hundred thousand in-between spaces in which people exist, degrees of gender identity and expression which are culturally or medically ambiguous. (Is there a difference? The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a disorder for years.) You might think you know what’s in someone else’s pants, but you don’t. People are born with wildly different configurations of genitalia, to which doctors or parents may or may not take exception. Not to mention the various procedures, cultural or medical (is there a difference?) with which a person may alter their own genitals (or other parts of their body) or have them altered by others, and which may or may not have an affect on their gender identity. You don’t know what people “are”, not unless they tell you themselves.

The craving for certainty is tyrannical. It demands an easy answer in as few words as possible; it requires that if you cannot answer in this way then you have a good explanation as to why not. It requires that your answer be definitive and that it not change depending on to whom you’re talking or in which language you’re speaking. It requires that the answer is not “I don’t know”, or “It depends”, or “What does it matter?”

The politics of certain knowledge also works the other way around. Legible defiance of gender norms, women who can be identified as women acting in a masculine way, or men who can be identified as men acting in a feminine way is cause for harassment; “But I know you to be this way – why do you then act that way?” Sissy boys or butch lesbians experience harassment running a terrifying gamut from tutting and looks on the bus, to “corrective” rape (that euphemism!) or being thrown from a bridge – falling and screaming and drowning because of the fluid sway of their hips, now submerged in the river below. As Mark Doty wrote after the 1984 murder of Charlie Howard, a young man lynched by three boys in a small town in Maine because of the perception he was gay:

What could he do, live

with one hand tied

behind his back? So he began to fall

into the star-faced section

of night between the trestle

and the water because he could not meet

a little town’s demands

In this case, the demands that Doty writes about are not that Charlie state which he is, male or female, but that, being seen as male in some insubstantial, essential way, he conform to expectations and act masculine, to walk the right way and not hold hands with other young men. The demands of the boys who threw him over the bridge, switching easily from right-to-know to right-to-act, right-to-correct, led to Charlie’s murder.

This is no bland point to the effect that we should not stereotype people, that homophobia is bad, or that we should not judge a book by its cover. Rather, I wish to suggest that it is in the act of seeing someone, in the act of looking itself, that we place people in categories always already there, and that these categories restrict not only our modes of seeing others but also others’ modes of being, or, if you prefer, the ways in which they can be themselves through their speech and their actions, the way they dress or the food they eat or the jokes they make. In looking at the book we have judged it already to have two covers and printed pages, carefully numbered, an author or authors, a publisher, an editor, an agent. If it is a work of non-fiction, we will assume it will have a contents page and possibly an index, a list of references. A dedication: to my darling Emily, for Mum and Dad, in loving memory of. We could never imagine that we might open the covers to find a rose garden inside, spilling out into our hands, the smell filling our nostrils even as the thorns prick our fingers. That’s not what books are.

Neither do I want to suggest that people are “more” than their gender, “more” than their sexuality, “more” than their race, because—although people are, of course, all of these things—this plea for a utopian, post-identity-politics won’t pick up the drowned body of the sissy boy in the river. It will not heal the wounds of the victims of a thousand others like him. Gay people, trans* people, feminists: all of us have the right to rejoice in our identities and to speak up against prejudice and marginalisation, against anything less than full and total recognition of our humanity in all of its iridescent complexity. But I also want to suggest that we have to understand how our perceptions are shaped and our prejudices hardened by our desire to know people, and that the desire to know people in this way is essentially violent.

So, deal with this violence. Practice seeing human beings before genders, before you know someone in that violent way as inappropriately masculine for a person with breasts, or too fat to be wearing skimpy clothing. Practice using third-person, gender-neutral pronouns; practice saying “they” and “themself”. Practice wondering, for example, whether people like to read Marcel Proust or Natsume Sōseki or both, or whether they take sugar in their coffee or not, rather than wondering if they have a cock or not. Practice saying not “I don’t judge”– which implies that you could, if you wanted to; that you have the authority and the right – but rather “I don’t know” and “I can’t know”. Practice getting used to that. Practice not knowing.

Nets

I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of islands recently, of the strangeness of them, isolated and surrounded by water as they are; and the way that people make islands into all sorts of things in their own heads, turning them into exotic paradises or wild enclaves. I’m currently in Shikoku, attending the Setouchi Triennale 2013 Art Festival, which is being held on a number of islands in the Seto Inland Sea, in-between Honshu and Shikoku. The festival invites various artists from all over the world to come and create works of art on the islands, providing a great deal of pleasure to locals and tourists alike, a boost for the local economy, and firmly cementing the reputation of this region–already home to Naoshima and its various art galleries–as an art-lovers’ paradise.

Today I was taken to Shamijima, a one-time island that has long-since joined the mainland. There, by the beach, is a giant net, woven in five colours. It sits there between the stone promenade and the sandy beach, moving in the wind. The sound of the waves and of conversation, the smells of the sea and soup being prepared, the cloudy sky and the blue of the ocean, they all pass through it. The artist, Igarashi Yasuaki, visited a number of the surrounding islands to learn from the fishermen and -women how to create them, and set up workshops for surrounding members of the community to come and participate in creating the art. And now it stands, catching the emotions of the people who come to see, its function not so much altered as moved sideways a little.

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All of which reminds me, in an odd way, of a different net. Walking along the beach, squinting through your sunglasses, you come to a fence. It’s high, and built far out into the ocean. Not string this time, but rather metal. Fashioned by the US military to keep local residents away. Henoko, on Okinawa main island. This is no community art project; this net is not designed to bring people together or start conversations. But it does. Tied to the fence are hundreds of ribbons, maybe thousands. Opposed to the expansion of Camp Schwab, they spell out words: “love”, “peace”, “anger”, “get out”. There are also banners in Japanese and English, deploring war and the expansion of the bases on Okinawa, demanding that the Americans up sticks and leave, holding out for a peaceful world, begging that the environment be saved. Nearby, a tent faces the ocean, full of protestors-in-residence.

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It’s an odd thing. Two islands, two beaches, two nets facing the ocean. One an art project, the other a piece of military infrastructure. Both tying people together. With the power of the US military and the depth of the US-Japan relationship, especially on Okinawa (and over the heads of Okinawans) I’m not sure the fence at Henoko will come down any time soon. But it cheers me just a little bit to see those ribbons, to see people making the creations of a massive military-industrial complex their own; to see, even in a small way, the net bringing people together.

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For more information on the Henoko protest movements, see here, among others.

I’d been up all…

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I’d been up all night, and I stumbled off the plane so bleary I could hardly walk. There, shimmering like a mirage at the end of the jetway, in the midst of what on my last visit had been a wasteland of Pizza Huts and Burger Kings, stood a newly opened Starbucks. I know, I know. Heartless corporate giant. Monster of coast-to-coast uniformity. Killer of mom-and-pop cafes. But that’s not what I thought at the moment. I thought : I’m going to order a grande latte with whole milk. I’m going to pour in two packets of Sugar in the Raw, and stir really well so there are so undissolved crystals at the bottom. I’m going to sit down and drink it slowly. Then I’m going to drive to the hospital. As I walked toward the counter, I said to myself: I can do this.

Anne Fadiman, “Coffee”, from At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays

Recently I’ve been somewhat busy applying for PhD programmes. I feel like I’m neglecting my blog somewhat, but I will return, and soon. Working in cafés in and around Tokyo, this passage keeps running through my head. Fadiman is a brilliant writer, and this essay is possibly my favourite one in the whole collection. Here we go.

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さらに言うなら、翻訳という作業は、過去のテキストなり知識なりを、「今」という時に不断に関与させ、効果的な知として提示してゆく歴史的責務でもあるのだ。

米山リサ、「翻訳・植民地主義・批評的想起—ヴァルター・ベンンと日本軍従慰安婦」

(”Or, to put it another way, the work of translation is also that of persistently making the text or knowledge of the past participate in the time we call ‘now’, and the historical duty of presenting it as effective knowledge.” Lisa Yoneyama, ‘Translation, Colonialism, Critical Remembering: Walter Benjamin and the Japanese Army Comfort Women’)

Travelling

Travelling from Tokyo to Okinawa and back again, I watched the view out of the windows of various vehicles: monorails, trains, planes, taxies, buses, cars. Seeing concrete and glass, wood and steel whip by, I wondered about the people who passed by and the people who built these structures, about who they were and what lives they lived, about their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. It got me thinking about space and cities, about people’s connection to the land, about how people travel. About how a place can be in the same country and a yet a world away from the metropole, about how we are surrounded, in the words of Edward Soja, with “human geographies… filled with politics and ideology.” (Postmodern Geographies, p.4)

In the next few days I hope to upload a few pictures of my trip with some musing on place and space in Okinawa.