What It Means to Imagine

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Imagination is the only purpose upon which existence rests. The castles we built first materialise in our heads before turning into stones and cement. Ursula K Le Guin, a thinker of our times and beyond, said  reading is imperative to imagination and reading only happens in the space of intimacy, faith and silence. Learning, says Le Guin, is a form of reading and vice versa. She further adds that imagination assumes much more importance in this post-capitalist world where every innovative human thought has been reduced to commodification for it to participate in the operational profit making process. Imagination, hence, needs to happen in communities and companionship; blossoming not on confrontation of ideas but on compassion of thoughts. 
 
We see valuation of imagination in the works of one of the greatest existential philosophers – Schopenhauer. He says that the genius is the one who differs not only in degrees of excellence but also in vision. Therefore, a creative genius is often subjected to condemnation or ridicule by contemporaries
 
Another fascinating mouthpiece of soaring imagination would undoubtedly be William Blake and his illustrations in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Subjected to a life of abject poverty, Blake believed in an abstract idea of spirituality which knew no reverence other then the reverence of soul’s self transcendence. Blake’s borderline agnosticism was not merely a political stance but a major imaginative flight. The idea of creating self cosmogony and one’s own definition of faith and spirituality is a thought that is still under a process of evolution in the 21st century, and a thought that we need today more than ever. 
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Words of Viola Davis: Crossing the ‘Fences’ of the Great Man Tradition

“…The fact that we breathe, live a life and are God to our children means that we have a story and it deserves to be told…”

There cannot be a contention to a thought that Viola Davis offered a memorable performance in the cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s iconic play Fences. Even though her performance underlines her underappreciated presence in Hollywood, the subject matter of her character in the movie is a more fascinating discourse to delve into. Starting from the very decision of adapting a play into a movie to the definitive selection of screenplay and uncoloured construction of dialogues, the presence of this movie and especially of Viola Davis’s interpretation of the idea that it represents comes across as a major challenge to the established traditions of storytelling in American cinema.

When Viola Davis began to deliver her winning speech at Screen Actors Guild Awards (2017), she quite distinctively mentioned the word ‘history’. While expressing what this recognition means to her and to the idea that this film stands for, she said that it is not often that a movie is made to display the story of an average man who happened to be a man of colour. The speech delivered by Viola Davis is a direct attack to the concept of theorizing prevalent practice in both literary and historical studies known as the Great Man Tradition.

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Credits: Huffington Post

Coined by the 19th century historian and commentator Thomas Carlyle, the Great Man Tradition in historical studies is a concept that chooses to understand history from the existence of the ‘great men’ who had occupied decisive and substantially prominent or heroic positions in the society. Such was the conviction of Carlyle that in his book titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and Heroics of History, he goes on to comment that the ‘history of the world is nothing but the biography of great men’. This idea resonates in Machiavellianism as well which stands of inculcating duplicity and cunningness in general conduct or statecraft. The idea of looking at history from the lens of who is termed as a ‘hero’ focuses on making a retrospective study an instrument for guiding the socio-cultural development of future actions and psyche. The understanding of the nature of history itself has been shortened at one hand by focusing the subject matter on certain prominent figures and on the other hand it has been displayed to be widened by associating it with the understanding of present dogmatic trends and the construction of some kind of future course of action.

There have been many criticisms to this tradition mainly coming from the realms of feminism and Marxist studies. However one that mounted the most was the one given by scientist and sociologist Herbert Spencer who refuted to see these ‘heroes’ in an isolated form. To Spencer, these cult personalities do not occupy these positions on their own or do not exist outside the social relations of their society. It is the social factors prevailing at that time that create a favourable or enabling environment for certain figures to occupy influential positions. So, when Hollywood period dramas celebrate Jackie Kennedy or Lincoln, they get quite deferential by not focusing much on the role played by sociological forces in the construction of personality cult around these figures. However, the practice of building a climax and anti-climax in the narrative of the art has somehow pushed the movies slightly away from the great man practice, but only procedurally and not substantially.

It is in this backdrop that Viola Davis, in front of the entire fraternity, proclaims that the stories of an average man or woman deserve to be in the canon of any narrative that has been built out there. She is reiterating the process of alleviating the common person to the books of history or probably the democratization of the discourse on history itself. The character that she plays is a prejudiced class within a class that has been systematically prejudiced. The slow or ‘real’ movement of her body and corresponding emotions in the space of performance represents the plight of dialectic of sex that has haunted the fight for gender equality since generations. She is painstakingly ‘natural’ and she wants us to know that how unfair this ‘naturalization’ is. This plight and the outburst that followed is a political statement in itself. Through Rose, Viola Davis brings drama at the doorsteps of a minority household; a set of cinematic expressions to the unexpressed desires of a coloured woman.

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Credits: Vanity Fair

As Viola Davis went on to thank her husband and her daughter, and as crowd was left with no choice but to applaud, I could not help myself but think what we have done to deserve an actor like her. Even before Fences, her Oscar nominated performances in The Doubt and The Help reflect her sheer commitment to break away from the great man tradition of storytelling. And as the recognition comes ridiculously late, I hope the very coming of it will also bring the change in the way cinema chooses to represent itself in the cultural industry.

Building upon Disappearance: Lady Gaga’s Joanne Answers to Contemporary Pop Culture

The fifth studio album of mother monster comes at a conjecture where pop music has been divorced from its instrumentalities; and quite literally so. The major releases in past few years have been dominated by electronically generated music, pitch correction and auto tuned vocals. It’s true that there have been few exceptions, and God they have been good, but the larger idea of pop music in the contemporary era seems to be moving towards this centre of dance music that is alienated not only from the conventional instruments but also from the personal storytelling. So folks, it’s true that pop music is constantly in the flux but what’s also undeniable is the movement of this flux in only one direction – the lyrical booty touche.

So what has this pop apocalypse dawned upon us? Well, the new album Joanne answers just that.

Ackbar Abbas, a renowned cultural theorist, came up with this idea of disappearance while studying the transitionary stage of the city of Hong Kong. He observed that the constant flux of the city under colonialism coupled with its globalised existence, created this identity of disappearance where no identity of Hong Kong claimed to be permanent. It was only when the British chose to hand over Hong Kong to a much obsolete and conservative state of China that the city began to realise the importance of making an identity for itself to resist such unwelcomed change.

Lady Gaga’s Joanne builds upon the same idea of disappearance. The blinding movement of contemporary pop music towards this unrelatable space of art where every display is mere objectification of sleazy sexual fantasies. The songs have been removed from poetical lyrics and are now stuffed with conversational slangs. This flux of pop music only realises its disappearing identity when Gaga’s Joanne dawns upon it.

Joanne not only brings back live recording and acoustic instruments back into foray but also displays a personality that develops through the songs within it. Named after Gaga’s late aunt who died of lupus at a very early stage of her life, the title track exemplifies the lingering grief of her father in the simplest of melodies. In addition to this, songs such as Angel Down which draws inspiration from Trayvon Martin and Diamond Heart that screams wreaking of childhood innocence by the doings of a rapists speak lengths about the character of the album which is not much diverged from Gaga’s own history of assault and rejection.

Apart from being personal, Joanne exemplifies the versatility of a true pop legend. From country to funk to soul, the swinging beat of progression provides every facet of the artist in the purest representation. So, how does Joanne works up with the audience?

The most common criticism that comes to this album is the idea that most of the songs are under produced or poorly recorded. This observation reflects nothing but the gravity of destruction that contemporary pop audience has underwent due to artificially tuned and over produced pop records. The lack of vocal strength and the use of lip syncing in award shows are the biggest signifiers of the cosmetics of contemporary pop music. Therefore, in such circumstances when you have an artist like Gaga or Sia who dare to go the natural way, popzillas find them to be under produced, musically weak or simply ‘weird’.

The second criticism carries the seed of its own bafflement. I’ve noticed many people saying that the vocals were top notch but they didn’t feel the song. So, you are accepting the vocal perfection of a person but still calling her a bad singer? Well, what does a singer supposed to do apart from getting her notes right? I think the lack of rationality here is quite self explanatory.

The third and the most confusing criticism comes from the Little Monsters themselves who say that since they expected another Fame Monster, Gaga’s new album fails to deliver. I believe that this is precisely the conservatism that hinders an artist’s growth to self celebratory legend stature. Artists often give up to this popular expectation and compromises on their creative instincts and artistic aspirations just to pander to the market. That’s precisely what Gaga is moving away from. Joanne is not only her record but also her rebel. It’s a statement she proudly makes about giving a space to an artist to realise her true potential, enjoy the music making process and develop a personal relationship with her fans. And talking about personal relationship, well the dive bar performance at NYC shall be the resting argument of my case.

Well, this entire construction of chaos and confusion that has been built around the new album comes from this restlessness that has been generated in the pop music patrons. They have been shown, quite unexpectedly and unapologetically, all what that has been compromised in creating this identity of disappearance. It’s hard for people to objectively analyse this album and the music that it offers for it becomes hard for them to divorce Lady Gaga from the fluidity she carries. So, even if Joanne stares at contemporary pop music right in the eye, it would be hard to expect any career defining sales for this one. We all know LG lives for the applause, so what if it comes from the people who actually matter.

A Queer Reading of the Surrogacy Bill

When I intended to write about the Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, I didn’t want to reduce my reading to an objective classification of its triumphs and travails. As a student of multidisciplinary studies and as a firm believer in the philosophy of understanding law as a functional unit of diverse humanistic disciplines, I focused my attention upon the analysis of the provisions of the Bill[1]from a perspective that unconsciously plagues its relevance – Gender.

The aforementioned pending legislation prohibits homosexuals from availing the benefit of surrogacy. In addition to this, unmarried heterosexual individuals, individuals in live-in relationships, foreigners and married couple with an already living biological child are exempted from having a child through the process of surrogacy.

It is understandable that the legislative intent is to regulate the surrogacy process in India, a country which is quite infamous as a surrogacy haven. The significant focus has been put on the ban on commercial surrogacy and setting up a system that provides maximum protection to the surrogate and legal recognition to the baby. The problem, however, begins to creep in when certain classes of people get explicitly prohibited to avail the option of surrogacy without any reasonable justification for the same. The psych that goes behind such exclusionary provision is based on flawed understanding of dynamics associated with modern kinship systems and parental psychology. The same is evidently reflective in the purposeful exclusion of unmarried individuals, married couples with biological kids, and most disturbingly – homosexuals.

 

  • Legal Affirmation of Homophobic Stigmatization

The only plausible reason that becomes evident from the exclusion of homosexual couples from the Bill is the belief of the state in various prejudices associated with the community. Such a belief is dangerous for it goes on to use state machinery and legislative process to legitimize the authenticity of such prejudices. Conformists often use law as the last word on the virtues or vices of a being or an activity. They defend almost all of their arguments by seeking validation from the intent of the state’s action, an institution that has long been perceived as one enshrined with higher intellect, and shush all their oppositions by proclaiming the term ‘law of the land’. This term further snowballs the problem as the plain reading of it would imply the application of this law on every person who belongs to this land. So those who disagree with this law are either forced to follow it or are not considered as part of the ‘land’. This is a borderline issue that pulls or pushes democracy from becoming a majoritarian oligarchy. Unfortunately, in the case of rights of homosexual community, there hasn’t been any uniform and pan-India survey in recent times to affirm the majoritarian claim of anti-homosexual lobby.

There exist many prejudices and stereotypes against homosexual couples especially with reference to their association with children. One of these prejudices that play a major role in this draft legislation is the one that says homosexual parenting is dangerous. To understand this prejudice in a detailed manner we need to look at certain examples from US, for in India, the plight of homosexuals and the idea of criminality associated with it doesn’t leave much room for homosexual people to embrace their sexuality let alone ask for equal rights. US Supreme Court in the case of Boys Scouts of America v. Dale[2] upheld the decision of the Boy Scouts of America to disallow a gay man to be a scoutmaster. While the court reasoned its judgment by saying that the organization must be allowed to privately and publicly advocate its viewpoint, it is not difficult to infer that it also passed a judgment on the issue of whether gay men should have contact with children.

Another dimension of this prejudice is a belief that says that upbringing of a child by homosexual parent would lead to his/her social condemnation. The same was declared by the Supreme Court of Virginia in Bottoms v. Bottoms[3] where the court neglected the doctrine of parental autonomy and gave the custody of a boy to his grandmother instead of his living and earning mother just because the latter was an out lesbian. The court held in its judgment that –

“Living daily under conditions stemming from active lesbianism practiced in the home may impose a burden upon a child by reason of the social condemnation attached to such an arrangement, which will inevitably affect the child’s relationship with its peers and with community at large”.

This judgment is not only condemnable but also unconstitutional for it tends to restrict a person’s fundamental right on the basis of a social prejudice that has no legal, factual or scientific validation. However, the most serious apprehension associated with this judgment is the fact that homophobic tendencies in judiciary can manifest itself so strongly that judges may tend to forget their professional ethics and expected fairness in order to use their authority to legitimize their belief and convert socially scattered homophobic sentiments into institutional and stratified homophobia under the name of ‘justice’.

This idea goes further to demonize homosexuals and see them as an identity isolated from their own identity. A sexual preference is forced to engulf all other statuses, preferences, and roles and juxtaposes every relationship as a consequence or a construction of underlying homosexual needs. So a gay man or lesbian woman was seen as ‘just a man’ and ‘just a woman’ until they came forward and opened up about their sexual preferences. Suddenly, a child’s favourite uncle becomes his most dangerous predator. This leads us to the next prejudice that sees homosexuals as sexually compulsive humans. All their notions of humanity, faith, emotions and choice are camouflaged by this overriding identity because of this perceived notion that homosexuality restricts ones choice of getting sex with the desired person and that makes them desperate for anyone who is from the same sex. This notion not only grossly trivializes the concept of romance in queer life but also wrongly interprets identity. If a heterosexual man’s life is not primarily guided by his sexual identity and it doesn’t stop or restrict him for adorning multiple identities, why wouldn’t the same principle apply to a homosexual man?

In addition to this, the societal fear of a homosexual’s child becoming a homosexual is also quite unfounded. Firstly, the problem comes with the ‘fear’ itself. If, as a homosexual, I’m fighting for my rights, I would be completely okay with my child developing the same sexual preference as mine. Secondly, there has been plethora of instances where homosexual identities are adorned by people who are born in heterosexual families and vice versa. Therefore, proto-queer theorists such as Foucault might argue the significance of socialization in the development of sexual preferences, but even they won’t be able to ignore the importance of self actualization and biological reasons behind one’s sexual preference.

The discrimination displayed in this particular form has far reaching consequences to the future of homosexual identity assertion in India. We already have a section in the penal code[4] that criminalises anal penetration or sodomy; however that applies to both heterosexual and homosexual couples. Now, a specific exclusion of homosexual couples from a civil provision that primarily deals with ones relationship with the institution of family and kinship, has further isolated the homosexual community from mainstream society. This form of exclusion is dangerous for it is institutionally established and can lead to systematic discrimination. The homophobic army would now validate their prejudices on the premise of higher intellect of the state and would vindicate their claims on homosexuality by quoting such discriminatory laws as example.

 

  • Conclusion

It’s evident that exclusion of homosexuals from the Act that regulates surrogacy is a way by which the state has sought to further isolate the homosexual community from normalization process with the mainstream society. While doing so, the state has sought to institutionally validate the social prejudices that exist against homosexual couples in the society. In addition to this, the state has also failed to acknowledge the sub-culture that proliferates within queer communities and the spectrum of identities, statuses and roles that they carry in their social milieu.

On these accounts, I believe that this particular exclusion is unconstitutional as it violates Article 14 of the Constitution. This provision fails to meet the dual test of fairness as the state has differentiated the homosexual couples from heterosexual couples on grounds that are not reasonable or natural but are based on the prejudices and stigma that is attached to the homosexual community by certain section of people in the society. Also, there doesn’t seem to be an objective nexus between the remedy that the Bill seeks to secure, which is a shift from commercial surrogacy to altruistic one, and the exclusion of homosexuals from the Bill. Therefore, government should reconsider the provision in an inclusive manner and in light of contemporary developments on societal dynamics instead of disempowering a community on the basis of baseless prejudices. After all, we belong to a welfare state.

 

 

[1] Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, 2014

[2] 120 S.Ct. 2449 (2000)

[3] 457 S.E. 2d at 108

[4] Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code