Making People Invisible: Reading Eastwood through Ellison

Here’s how my research is going: it’s the Friday before Labour Day, the term starts next week, and I’m in denial about these basic facts. I’m also in the midst of taking notes, the most dreary part of research ever. I wanted to write a post about this, but then I watched the video of Clint Eastwood at the Republican Convention. The video is here.

I had gleaned from the twitterverse that the speech was rambling, potentially embarrassing, and weird. So I decided to watch it. What I saw almost made me choke on my blueberry yoghurt I had for second breakfast after swimming. Clint Eastwood put an invisible Barack Obama on a chair next to him to put him down, and to put profanities in Obama’s mouth. Oh my.

Has no one at the RNC read Ralph Ellison’s Insivible Man? It’s a great novel about the ways in which Black people in the South and in New York City are made invisible by the politics of looking, noticing, and looking through people. When I read the book, I was a grad student, new to the US and their racial politics, and I read the book on roughly the same subways that the protagonist rides, being made invisible. I do not claim to know now how it feels to be made invisible. But I am profoundly grateful for the novel; it made me so much more alert to the ways in which people interact in public space, including in the very subways I was riding. It made me feel uncomfortable in a very productive way. Maybe that’s why I like to do subway photography now … but I digress. One other blog post I have seen so far has made the connection between Ellison and Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood, in turning President Barack Obama into a cipher, an abstraction that cannot be seen, and cannot talk back, has done us the great service of illustrating the racial politics of the GOP. Minorities are talked about, not invited to talk. It’s better to fantasize about someone’s responses and explanations than to actually ask them and listen. And it’s impossible to imagine Black people to utter anything except for the kinds of profanities that would justify silencing them.

One could argue that Eastwood did not read Ellison and had no idea that his speech & interactions would come across as “offensive”. Or something like that. To which we should respond that it’s not just about the novel. Behind Eastwood, the grumpy old white man, stands a speaks an ugly string of US politics and history. As Judith Butler remarked on hate speech and hateful performances (in Excitable Speech, for the geeks that want to check out the book), the message is not on the surface of the utterance or action; it is created through the repetition and invocation of a history of racism, subordination and violence — and in this case, silencing. Eastwood enacted not only his own fantasies, but ways of seeing that run deep within US politics. It is everyone’s responsibility to not continue these structures of feeling; these ways of seeing, silencing, and muting people.

In the twitterverse, meanwhile, @invisibleObama is a new and thriving account. Barack Obama has responded to the performance with a tweet saying “This seat’s taken” and this photo. And this one. Did chairs just become a political issue?

This post has just become a research-in-progress update on two projects: first, the Hate 2.0 project, in which we should ask, with Butler, who and what speaks in racist speech: not only the speaker, but what else? How can we make sense of racist performances, their contexts, and the politics of blame around them?

Second, this episode got me to think about the upcoming project on making violence visible/invisible to international law. I am interested in the ways by which people make the claim that certain forms of violence should be a matter of concern of international law. Case studies will include genocide, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and bombing. The project will also get me to think about what we mean when we say that something or somebody is visible or invisible. What are the regimes and nuances of visibility? I realized that my copy of Invisible Man is, well, not invisible, but in Germany. Let’s not make any more cheap jokes. So I ordered a new one, and I am looking forward to re-reading the book. Next on my reading list, however, is George Orwell’s 1984. Everyone in my faculty is supposed to read this book (doesn’t this sound like an Orwellian fantasy already?) and discuss it. I’ll be on a panel on Sept 19th to talk about it. Stay tuned. I will blog about reading the book.

Playing with Nationalism: My Op-Ed on the Olympics

This is my first Op-Ed ever, in the Ottawa Citizen.

The Olympic Games are not only the most competitive and watched sports event. The Games also have a unique spirit of understanding, diversity and equality. The Olympic Charter says participants are committed to “social responsibility” and “peaceful society.” Yet, over the duration of the London Olympics, three athletes have been sent home for racist tweets or extremist right-wing associations. Their actions — and the reactions of their Olympic committees — show that the Olympic spirit has a dark underbelly of hate. The Olympics rely on and feed nationalism, but they do not want to be associated with the devaluation of outsiders that comes with the nationalism they foster.

The entire piece: here.

A prior version exists as a blog post complete with references and all. Looking forward to comments.