Monday, 28 October 2013

Use My Body

So having spent the last class watching Forbidden Voices, a documentary about three women in three repressive regimes using blogging to challenge the political establishment, I've been brooding and chewing the insides of my mouth as I do thinking about one thing, mainly: is there gonna be a documentary like this for Chelsea Manning?

For anyone not in the loop, Chelsea Manning, while in the military in 2010, leaked a large number of classified documents to Wikileaks, including footage of the murder of civilians by US soldiers. Of course, at the time she was living under the name Bradley Manning, and in the aftermath of her trial she came out as transsexual and took the new name Chelsea. The American government, predictably, are being assholes about the question of whether or not she will be able to receive hormone treatment in prison, and she's been roundly vilified in even the ostensibly "liberal" American press (who more and more these days are revealing themselves to be, at best, a paler shade of red).

All of this is a big deal to me, honestly, as someone less than straight and less than completely comfortable in one gender, and it's been heartening to see, after going questing for feminist takes on Chelsea Manning's case, that there's actually quite a lot of support. I wasn't sure at first whether there would be, what with the pretty caustic transphobia in some feminist quarters. But a quick google search actually turns up a web full of feminist support for Chelsea Manning. This is, it seems, being considered a feminist issue (and rightly so). I particularly enjoyed this scathing critique of the complete systemic failure of the corporate media to show even a modicum of respect, humanity, and empathy for Manning.

Hi, yes, this isn't one of those blog posts where I pretend to be anything resembling neutral and aloof. Maybe I should've added a warning to that effect at the beginning? Too late now.

Anyway, this gives me great hope that we may, in time, get a documentary comparative to Forbidden Voices on Manning that is informed by a queer feminist perspective. It would be great, in fact, if the same folks who put together Forbidden Voices, which unfortunately focused on three women in countries that the United States isn't friends with, could broaden their scope to encompass a more diverse range of experiences and perspectives, among which Manning would fit well as a woman now subject to state persecution for acting as a whistleblower against abuses of power. Maybe not being a "blogger" strictly disqualifies her but I mean what is a blogger even, really? The sheer fluidity of modern social media makes the strict delineation of blogging a little fluid to begin with, and I'm not sure there's so much difference between, say, Farnaz Seifi blogging with the facilitative help of Reporters Without Borders and Manning making information public with the facilitative help of Wikileaks. Anyway, regardless, it seems like a potential right step forward to help balance some of the relative weaknesses of the film (which I'll be talking about in a later week).

And all of that seemed nice and neat, tidy little conclusion, tie it with a bow, hit post, and ship it out on the intertubes, but then I ran into this slightly incoherent but somehow deeply troubling post on Alternet: "Chelsea Manning gives us a Rare Opportunity to Create an Anti-War Coalition of Feminists."

Feminists of all types must widen their commitments to see how anti-militarism is part of the larger sexual, gender and racial democracy. The civil rights movement should see an ally in Manning, who has stood openly against the US military's killing and maiming of Arabs and Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We have a rare opportunity to create an anti-war coalition of anti-racist feminists of all sorts, no matter their biological body. This would be a coalition that embraces sexual, economic, racial, and gender rights for each and every one of us.

Something about this rubbed me the wrong way... largely, I think, because we just read Tiziana Terranova's "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy," which has a lot to say about free labor on the Internet.

The implication that I find somewhat disconcerting here is that rather than Manning actively leading the charge, as it were, her body is being used, in absentia, as a political rallying point. Or at least that's what the article's author, Zillah Eisenstein, seems to be suggesting implicitly.

Like, I'm really into this whole finding affinities across diversity lines thing right now, yeah? I'm really loving Harraway and Sandoval and that sort of camp of people. Coalition-building is a good thing.


The sort of... almost casual suggestion here that if Manning is still stuck in prison, hey, we can build a movement around that so there's an up side... that is disturbing to me, because it suggests that Manning's existence, her presence in prison, is a form of free labor that the Left can draw upon. The part of me that sees myself reflected in Manning recoils from the appropriation of her transgender body for political purposes without her consent, no matter how noble the cause.

I think this makes for a good ethics question in academia--is the use of case studies, political examples, &c. a form of exploitation, a way of using someone's free labor without even their awareness, turning them into an actor with no autonomy or will of their own? In particular, it seems highly problematic in this case since Chelsea only recently came out and there may be a level of uncertainty or fluidity to her own identity that must, by necessity, be compressed down to a static identity in order to better facilitate a clean political rallying point. God knows queerness outside the narrow confines of white middle class gay and lesbian family-building is already politically catastrophic enough! I really don't think these fools who complain about "Political Correctness" have any sense of what truly is politically correct. It's a lot easier to be their brand of "politically incorrect" than it is to be, say, a genderqueer polyamorous pansexual.

But I digress.

The point is, I worry that Manning here is being reduced to a particular kind of body that can serve as a particular kind of ideological standard, and that this reduction is happening in a way that is potentially exploitative--that Manning's "work" as an imprisoned trans woman is producing a convenient tool for the radical left. And that's a situation that I'm not comfortable with.

This is Cyborg Maria, and I'm really pleased with the multiple layers of meaning presented by my ending song choice this week.

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