Complex Singularities

Adventures in Thinking Outside the Tower
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Open Letter to Margaret Wente from the Sexuality Studies Association

Dear Ms. Wente,

We write to thank you—tongue properly in cheek—for highlighting the Sexuality Studies Association in your article of 2 June, 2015. As a new and dynamic scholarly association committed to the critical study of sexuality from an intersectional social justice perspective, we appreciate that your column has projected awareness of our association on the national stage. We are especially attuned to the care you took in demonstrating the dire necessity for sexuality studies work and education by meticulously crafting your article to include the maximum amount of homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism. This was very effective for showing the importance of—pardon the buzzword—intersectionality. By intersectionality, we signal how issues of power and privilege around sex, race, class and gender cross and impact each other in life and culture. Take, for example, recent sexist and ageist controversies surrounding school dress codes; the fraught racial and sexual politics of the new sex ed. curriculum in Ontario schools; the sexist and transphobic comments of US politician Mike Huckabee; or indeed prominent news editorials that, through cherry picking playful essay titles, attempt to mock and deride marginalized members of Canadian society, and their lives, desires or bodies. Finally, we pass along thanks on behalf of the three authors whose papers you mention by title (Toby B. D. Wiggins, Thomas Waugh and Dayna Prest), for showcasing their excellent work in your piece. We appreciate the exposure to their cutting-edge research that your column provided. We would ask, however, that in future if you mention others’ work that you cite it so that those who produced it can receive the proper credit—although we realize that proper citation is sometimes difficult for you.

Thanks again for your enthusiastic support,


Nathan Rambukkana, SSA Chair (Outgoing)

Melissa Autumn White, SSA Vice-Chair

Sheila L. Cavanagh, SSA Chair (Incoming)

Referral: Reflecting on Monogamy from a Poly Perspective

This article by Heina Dadabhoy rings very true for me, though I would add straddling both worlds taught me as well about the issues that plague both monogamous and poly relationships, and about power in intimate relationships generally.

Check it out here:

New paper: Mutt, Monster or Melting-Pot? Mixed-Race Metaphor and Obama’s Ambivalent Hybridity

I’m excited to post a new short article of mine just published in Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology for the special issue Hacking the Black/White Binary edited by the amazing Brittney Cooper and Margaret Rhee.

You can find it here:

And here is Brittney and Margaret’s timely and thoughtful introduction to the special issue, one that was compiled during the events of #Ferguson and the other tragically parallel events in the US:

#RaceFail to #Ferguson

From an essay I’m working on today:

One question worth asking is what is the space between #RaceFail and #Ferguson? One important thing to note is that the time between them isn’t neutral, but rather one of development. The networked persistence of discussions of racism in life and culture (of which the stickiness of #RaceFail is a useful metonym) has allowed critical race theory to expand from the bounds of too-insular activist and academic subcultures and publics into a known apparatus and structure of the public sphere as a whole. The space between these two tags is one of time and growth and development—similar, also, to the space between 9/11 and the Boston bombings or the recent shootings on Parliament Hill in Canada. When innocents are killed it is always a tragedy. But when 9/11 happened, Western society snapped: racism poured out of the woodwork (where it was always already having major structural effects) and overwhelmed the critical voices and societal guilt-structures that kept it unevenly and incompletely in check. But in the subsequent events we had the apparatus of critical race discourse (forged on the fly from the frictions and fractures of that time) to bulwark and embolden our critical voices, intersectional analyses to ask also what roles poverty and mental health issues might have had in triggering these horrible events, and the sobering and dismal reality of the post-9/11 period to help us resist falling prey to the fear mongering of opportunistic and hawkish politicians. #Ferguson and its ilk are the legacy of earlier critical discussions and the earlier techno-social events that mobilize them, and collectively form an activist critical objection—a quarrel—levelled at unjust abuses of power.

Referral: On the Dangers of Focus on the Family Teaching Sex Ed

This article about an amazing open letter from 17-year-old high school student Agatha Tan to her high school principal shows not only the dangers on letting Focus on the Family teach sexual education workshops but also the amazing resilience of youth with respect to attempts by institutions specifically and deliberately trying to limit their knowledge. As an interesting side note, in her original letter, she mentions that another student noted that “polyamorous individuals” were one the groups ill-considered by FotF rhetoric, a point that was shut down:

When someone else tried to raise that the facilitator’s views were too narrow and that they failed to consider, for instance, LGBTQ or polyamorous individuals, he effectively shut her down by saying that her views were not what the audience wanted to listen to and that perhaps she could remain quiet for now and bring it up with him afterwards so they could end the first half of the course for break, which was coming up “very soon”. (He failed to actually ask the audience if we wanted to listen to her opinion and assumed we wholeheartedly accepted his, and break was in fact almost another half hour later.) I personally thought that listening to her opinion was more important than tea break, but what do I know? After all, I am just a “gal”.

Such “eduction” is frankly child abuse, and I am glad that students are fighting back and voicing their concerns in the public sphere.


Referral: Trigger Warnings are about Violence (not Political Correctness)

Because I haven’t posted a referral in a while, and because I want to celebrate his triumphant return to blogging, and because this is an excellent piece, I refer you to Jonathan Sterne’s wonderful open letter in response to CAUT’s James Turk and the Montréal Gazette. In this respectful excoriation, Sterne aptly points out the intimate privilege inherent in being able to dismiss the notion of the trigger warning in pedagogy. And more: he skillfully critiques the notion that warning students in advance that a piece may contain images of, say, sexual assault, war atrocities, or lynching amounts to censorship of pedagogy when, in reality, it is about respect and not wanting to re-traumatize someone unnecessarily.

Check it out here on Super Bon!:

Griping About Grip

It is sadly telling of the state of advanced neoliberal capitalism that on my winter walk to work I always favour the private side of the street to the public.

But I should explain.

I live in Markham, Ontario, an unashamedly suburban town. One of those places notoriously designed for cars and not people. It is a place of sprawl, and not of the type of cyberpunk conurbation visioned by Gibson—his Sprawl being stark but, most notably, a place of people, of foot traffic, of endless city but
also somehow vibrant, alive, peopled—but rather that other kind; yes, stark, but also desolate, stretched out, etiolated, drained somehow of the vital essence of what makes a city a City.

As a person without a car and lodged within the realities of precarious labour, neoliberal academia, and personal reasons for sticking close to the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), my commute to work is a long affair involving a 20 minute hike to the main transit route, followed by about 3 hours of various busses through a fair few cities until I get to my place of employment. A long commute, certainly, but that’s not the frustrating part.

The frustrating part is the 20 minute walk.

In winter, the paucity of public snow removal, of gritting and salting the ice that so often forms, means that those 20 minutes (and sometimes 30) are a constantly frustrating and harrowing experience. Since the modern, North American suburb is designed for cars and not people there are few sidewalks, and those that are there are not prioritized.

But I make due. Like de Certeau, I make use of pathways and folkways. I cut through church parking lots and, more often than not, use the (paved) road rather than the (unpaved) sidewalk. But one thing in particular has been bugging me, and is the reason for this post.

In my making do I noticed a pattern. It’s a particularity of the main road that makes up the majority of my route that it is oddly divided: the east side of the street is almost all privately owned (a row of town houses, a business complex, a small park, and a condo) and the other side is all public (a highschool, a theatre, and Markham’s city hall). The reason for my griping is that over the two winters I have regularly trudged this route it is almost idiomatic that the private-adjacent sidewalk is always ploughed, salted and gritted (and early on), while the public-adjacent sidewalk is rarely, if ever, fully managed. The fact that the most ill-kept area is the walk beside the city hall fills me with rage. This should be the heart of the civil—it should be accessible, not sheathed in ice!

It frustrates me to no end that to get grip under my feet I need to choose the private option. That to have sure footing I cleave to the condos whose private managers bring out an army of shovelers in the wee hours of the morning and an embarrassment of equipment and materia to humanize the ways for their owner-citizens and to prevent damages from litigation. Like frustrated parents in an underserved school district, the lure if the private option rings so strong due to the continual erosion of the public. And it continues to erode under neoliberalism because of this faulty assumption that the private will step in and take up the slack. Which, to some extent it does, but only insomuch as is it serves a capitalist interest. Which is why on the private side of the street the way is clear around the condo and business complex, but the park in between them becomes a wasteland of neglected drifts. And why the private bus service I take drastically cuts service in the summer, and on weekends, because there is less profit to be had. And why the same private provider is building infrastructure in the form of a useful Bus Rapid Transit corridor along the highway, but bars the regional public busses from using it. Neoliberalism creeps, and living in this sprawl zone makes me feel like I’m living in Stephenson’s Snowcrash, where a crosshatching of corporate-states intercuts the nation- and network-states we already inhabit, increasingly privatizing citizenship and making it impossible to live life in the (sub)urban without an array of membership cards that grant you access to the services that should be part and parcel of public provision.

Imagined Communities

The biggest misread of Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” is the notion that his argument is that such worlds are false or fictional constructs. Rather, what is meant by “imaginary” here is its psychoanalytic usage, which is to say “made of of images”. Humans use images to conceive of the world around us, and those images combine into a system, which Lacan called “The Imaginary”, that we use to organize those conceptions. We also use another layer of apprehension built out of language which Lacan called “The Symbolic” to similarly represent and interact with an underlying “Real”.

Now, the Imaginary and the Symbolic together build up our perception of “reality”, which is the Real as filtered and mediated by our consciousnesses, by human society, history, politics. The Imaginary is a crucial part of that construct, and is the part of human culture that is made up of things like relationships, networks, assemblages that hold meaning but might not always be symbolizable, or able to be put into words.

Communities are imaginary for this reason, because they are bigger than any one person’s individual experience, because they often escape easy description through words, or easy delineation on a map. National, provincial, municipal, diasporic, or virtual communities; ethnoscapes, technoscapes and mediascapes; activist, fan and social media networks: all of these communities and spaces are imagined—but that doesn’t make them less real.

Portrait of a Footnote

I think it takes me so long to write sometimes because I get caught up in the furrows and folds of the text I am producing. And I think that one of the reasons for this is the inherent complexity of the material relationships I am writing about. As political identities and connections, they have an excess of context, an “always more” that needs to be appended to the discussion. I want to include all of it, and when I cut parts off, or don’t include them, I feel it as a breach, a wrongness. My particular vice is the footnote—as my long-suffering editor at UBC Press can attest to. In a 70,000 word first manuscript draft I had about 15,000 words of footnote which I felt I needed to properly convey my material. Several drafts later, I have cut thousands of those original 15,000 marginal words, but others needed to be added in (due to revisions, new material, further reflections). I can’t seem to kick the habit.

Another example is the pet peeve I have had for a while with many, many people outside of the BDSM community of mis-describing this acronym as standing for “Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism”; actually it’s a compressed accronym that stands in for the overlapping cluster of abbreviations: BD, DS and SM (or, ”Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism”). This exclusion bothers me—and increasingly with the ongoing mainstreaming of BDSM—because it’s an elision that ignores the presence of the D/s scene as part of BDSM culture, and erases a key third of this finely calibrated signifier, one painstakingly worked out in the sadomasochistic public sphere with a view to inclusion.

Such is my anal insistence on spelling this out (often, of course, in footnotes) every time I use BDSM in my writing, that these footnotes get quoted in turn in other writing, something I find both hilarious and oddly satisfying—like being quoted in a style manual for the correct use of the semicolon.

And so, I remain, a stubborn user of copious footnoting, because, as in this example I pulled from annotating my choice to use “LGBT* and queer” in an article, these choices have meaning; and in the Foucauldian nexus of power/knowledge, the process and specificities of definition matter.

I used “LGBT* and queer” here, for three interlocked reasons: First, I acknowledge a range of Trans* identities in line with current activist mobilization of this term (e.g., Killerman, 2012). Second, the asterisk at the end of “LGBT*” can also be seen to speak to multiple, additional identities in line with the convention of using a “*” as a wild-card in digital searching. Finally, I include “queer” as a separate, non-capitalized additional positionality to respect the notion that some have of queer as an anti-identity identification (though a capitalized and identity-political “Queer” identity would also be included conceptually under the sign of the asterisk).