In Which CeCe McDonald, Mykki Blanco, and An Octopus Costume Ask Us: Can Violence Be Sincere?

by on Jun.26, 2012

To continue my last words from a couple of weeks ago while taking into account recent posts, I’m going to beat a dead horse and explain more why I favor the model of susceptibility over sincerity.  As hard as I try to embrace re-definitions of sincere art-making, I reach a limit when I think about violence.  On Montevidayo we tend to collapse the categories of art and violence so often–as if art were inherently a violent force–that I can’t help but try to put the words ‘sincerity’ and ‘violence’ together.  But I draw a blank each time I do this.

I get particularly confused when I follow my train of thought from examples of violence in/as art to examples of criminal violence.  The most pertinent example right now, for me, is that of CeCe McDonald, the African-American trans woman who was sentenced to prison here in Minneapolis on a felony charge.  After being harassed and punctured in the face with a glass, McDonald killed one of her attackers in self-defense with a pair of scissors.  Although McDonald took a plea bargain and avoided going to trial, the prosecution would’ve undoubtedly argued that her act of self-defense was not ‘sincere’–that is, they would’ve claimed she did not act on fear for her own life.

I bring up this example to highlight the political ground we lose when we resign ourselves to ‘sincerity,’ a word I believe can do no good no matter how we twist it.  This is a discourse, of course, on which the state and its prison industrial complex depend.  By stressing McDonald’s free will and decision to retaliate, in this sense, the prosecution in McDonald’s case would’ve found a convenient way to overshadow a highly charged social context.  They wouldn’t have needed to consider the climate of violence that plagues trans people, especially trans women of color, not to mention the swastika tattoo on the chest of McDonald’s attacker.  If it sounds like I’m just speculating, here’s an interesting scoop:  while the court disqualified Dean Schmitz’s Nazi tattoo as valid evidence, it permitted the prosecution to use a bounced cheque McDonald had once written to question her character.  Her ‘insincerity,’ as in the case of many if not most people of color who go through the justice system, was easily emphasized over the race and gender dynamics of her case even before trial.

I don’t think it makes sense to ask whether McDonald’s act to protect her own life was sincere.  I think McDonald did what she needed to do to survive; she was made susceptible to the circulation of violence the moment she walked out into the street as a trans black woman.  Nor do I think it’s apt to ascertain the sincerity of the graffiti art that her case has spawned.  People are still writing “Free CeCe” on public property from Paris to NYC not out of self-determined sincerity per se but a contagious sympathy, urgency, and necessity.  As with the hoodie-wearing inspired by Trayvon Martin, they find themselves in alliance with McDonald because they’re shaken by a system that has not just failed to protect her, but has gone out of its way to target her and others like her.

Allies in Berlin

I get just this kind of contagious sympathy from Mykki Blanco’s “Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me A Perm).”  In the video for the song, Blanco makes a ritual of her volatile transgendered life to the point of wearing, ingesting, and becoming a dead octopus:

Blanco is so susceptible to unlikely species and monsters that she confesses to an unwitting affair with a terrorist:

Just fight hair blanco voodoo/It’s black magic music nigga, blanco who do/They kept me in this holding cell for close to eight days/They can keep me here forever cause my story won’t change/His name: Ahsan Abdul/Weight one-seventy, height six two/Size twelve shoe, black hair, brown eyes/The warmest smile in the world/But so cold-blooded inside/Who am I to judge him?/I hate him, but love him/Damn, I didn’t know my man was in the Taliban.

When she raps, “Blanco stay floatin’, stay focused, stay open/I been mental/Girl interrupted/Nurse please check my aorta/Cause I think my shit just busted/Many trusted me with the gift of the prophets/But my hands they are bloody,” I’d argue that Blanco steers us away from sincerity to something like intensity as a goal worth striving for, and for which most of us maybe already strive.  The prophet is as insane as Angelina Jolie, her hands are bloodied and her body is nothing if not volcanic, how can we good citizens trust her if she didn’t realize her man was in the Taliban?  And yet, I am spellbound by her queer voodoo because it slices and opens me up to forms of violence beyond language, meaning, representation, and identity.  As the latter domains are all epistemological, we inevitably use them to recognize ourselves:  they prompt the question of what a person is instead of how a person is changed.  To identify you or myself, in this sense, I’m obligated to hold onto at least a shred of illusion.  I’m pressed to assume that a human being can grasp and represent some kind of stable, discreet self.

But the video’s light-trembling, fish-lynching and whiskey-swigging are the media of violence that fully estrange this self, inviting tentacular transformation.  What we’re dealing with, after all, is a vibrating ecology.  Blanco does not ask us if we’re sincere enough join her militia, or if she’s sincere enough to lead one.  Because her art is less a force of clear intentions than ever-shifting states of possession, mediation, and adaptation, less a consequence of being sincere than becoming whatever intense thing Blanco must become, it’s self-determination through and through that her black magic destroys:

“Blanco is the truth and you bitches know what I say”  

The truth, as my pal Jesse Leaneagh pointed out, being already racialized and gendered as a tool in the hands of someone like CeCe McDonald’s attacker–the “blanco” or “white man.”  Jesse calls Blanco’s mantra a ‘hallucinatory invective’ in a Deleuzian take so awesome I’m excerpting it below.

So is it madness or are we “rediscovering the delirious person in his own specific world” which is actually our world, everyone’s world, the whole world?  Blanco laughs, blows a kiss, then becomes catatonic all in seconds, covered by an octopus on her genitals, her back, her head, finally eating it.  She is “identifying the names of history with zones of intensity on the body without organs.”  She is octopus reaching out through history at once, also covering the surface of the water, the holding cell she experienced, the lower deck of Middle Passage too—why not haunted history—and her laughter is octopus ink and also the ocean.

Just as a Mykki Blanco’s becoming-octopus echoes her body’s history of violence without labeling it, I too am shot through with violent contagions I can’t contain.  We might call this case of mutatis mutandis.  (Mutatis:  “having been changed”; mutandis: “things needing to be changed.”)  I’ve been changed, but still feel things needing to be changed, because Blanco’s suction cups pull me in as the magnetic media of slavery, history, the present, the body, the body as drag, ecology, perhaps even the contaminated flux of the entire Earth.  I’m sucked in whether or not I believe her claim to being anointed by Nas with a perm (of course I desperately want to believe it!).

If the injunction of “Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me A Perm)” leaves me with any degree of choice, it’s a forced choice.  It’s not fundamentally a matter of whether I am or appear sincere in my response, of accessing some version of sincerity, but of adapting to this mutant angel’s spell through a monstrous sympathy/sympathy for monsters in my own life.  What intense yet unrecognizable thing must my body, too, now become?  Or even better, how must I disobey and destroy the law of sincerity?

15 comments for this entry:
  1. Kim

    Yes! With this, and Joyelle’s ballet post, let us declare sincerity dead (dramatically)! Then wear it, possibly eat it.

  2. Lucas de Lima

    I’m getting hungry already… so is Fiona Apple, who caught the octopian bug in her own new video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIlLq4BqGdg

  3. Johannes

    I love the phrase “blanco with the truth” – it seems to make “truth” into something unstable. A blank truth. Shooting blanks. Blanking out. Something like susceptibility I suppose. Also the way she repeats it makes the “the” in “the truth” very un-singular.

    Often in mediumistic possession, the process depends on a kind of version of “sincerity” in that there is an essential being that you communicate directly, ie without language. But in this case – as in cases I tend to be drawn to – the language (‘blano’ vs the deterministic description of the taliban guy) is key, it’s what sets this whole gothic ecology into shudderation.

    But, Kim, I don’t think we can declare “sincerity” dead. It’s everywhere, it’s a dominant trope in poetry discussions. Instead lets, yes, eat it.

    Like I said in my post from a while back, I’m totally sincere in my dedication to art. But in art reductive ideas of interiority is lost.

    Also, yes, love the octopus. Great post.

    Johannes

  4. Lucas de Lima

    Oh yeah, I didn’t even think about the blankness–“shooting blanks.” So good.

    I wouldn’t say I’m sincere in my dedication to art. I have doubts all the time, and often feel frustrated, defeated, inadequate, unfocused, cynical about my writing. But something not reducible to sincerity forces me to keep going. I think my point ultimately in this post is that I can’t imagine sincerity without interiority. I don’t see a way to use one concept without invoking the other.

  5. Jesse Leaneagh

    Not to be nitpicky but Mykki B never says “Blanco with the truth” she only says “Blanco is the truth,” which I think is important in considering the song’s hysteria. As Deleuze says, “paranoia decomposes just as hysteria condenses.” The song and video can be read like Bhanu Kapil’s “schizophrenic narrative that cannot process the dynamic elements of an image” with this crazy person making up a story about Nas and interacting with an octopus as no sane person would, and also it is a Trojan horse that when we look closer is a performance of insanity that is condensing human history in a unique way. The problem with “sincerity” is the same as that with “authenticity”…it assumes that our intentions matter over the racial, gendered, socioeconomic, and historical conditions in which we are all already complicit, susceptible, and constantly performing.

  6. Lucas de Lima

    Another relevant thing about Bhanu’s Schizophrene is how, much like Jabes, it foregrounds “the book” in a way that derails any claims to sincerity (as well as one of sincerity’s opposites- intellectual distance). We’re always in an ecology of sensations, there’s no way out, our intentions are themselves always those of the matter around us.

  7. Jesse Leaneagh

    “We’re always in an ecology of sensations, there’s no way out, our intentions are themselves always those of the matter around us.” yes, Lucas that is a much better way to phrase it. What is exciting about Mykki Blanco is that he finds a way to live in all these sensations while also seeming to acknowledge historical forces as well as break new ground.

  8. Johannes Göransson

    Kim, Lucas, Jesse,

    All great comments.

    Blanco is the truth, Blanco with the truth – I read those two the same way. The “blank truth” that gets repeated over and over. What is the truth? It seems to be the speaking of the words “blanco is the truth” (among other things). It’s a truth that proliferates in language and images. Not the one truth, but the many truths; and the many truths that are of language, not the “meaning” as separate from language.

    Or perhaps this is my foreignist misunderstanding of the phrase (which is of course half in a foreign language).

    It’s interesting that according to dictionary.com, one of the roots of “Sincerity” is “of one growth” (ie not hybrid or “adulterated”). This of course proves my anxiety that a foreigner can’t be sincere, but more importantly the definitions all begin with “not deceitful”. Ie in order to have sincerity, you need it’s opposite, just as I noted that in order to have a model of “communication”, one needs an idea of communication breakdown to define it against. Foreign elements intrude on the sincere, pre-lingual, pre-cultural message.

    One problem is that art is in a sense “deceit” – making up imaginary stuff. Which explains why in so many sincerity discussions, art seems almost like an obstacle to overcome. An obstacle to multiplies, proliferates without the proper ordering. The proper ordering being of course a model of sincerity, interiority etc. This reminds me of Danielle’s suggestion that girls supposedly have “secrets” instead of interiority; they are full of secrets, full of deceit.

    I think Joyelle’s Nijinsky post shows a different model of sincerity – to art (aka deceit), though as Seth points out, Nijinsky thinks he’s possessed by God (God doesn’t want anything to do with me, I’m too ugly and I don’t dance well). Though I obviously believe that this “sincerity” can include “frustration” and whatever else too (Lucas, actually your rejection of sincerity seems to be on the grounds that it’s not “sincere enough” in a sense, doesn’t reflect your frustration etc).

    And most of all I think of art as possession, but to me this is “sincerity” to art. But this sincerity – based on the matter that supposedly gets in the way of sincerity – must be a quite different idea of communication, interiority etc. The “blanco truth” of the art is not separate from the matter – the images, the words, the bodies, the crimes. The foreign is not opposed to the sincere, but the opposite (it comes into us). Sincerity can be anything we want it to be, in other words.

    I don’t think that sincerity suggests that “intention” “matter over” various “ecologies.” Obviously artists have intentions, but they can matter “through” or “with” or “in” our surroundings. Only the most reactionary ideas of canonicity would reject “historical forces.” I also think it’s important to note that intention is not the same as “interiority.” Mykki Blanco obviously needs an “intention” in order to make this video… A lot of intention! But to go back to Joyelle’s post about “influence” from a long time ago: Blanco’s truth is definitely under the influence of our violent culture. She’s “susceptible.”

    I have to admit I don’t agree with a model of art as having to “acknowledge historical forces” while also “break new ground.” This suggests paradoxically a very agency-heavy model of artistic creation: we acknowledge, we ponder, we break. That makes her seem less exciting to me. Kind of dry, don’t you think?

    To me the video is interesting because of the way it dramatizes and moves through various images of our culture in a baroque and excessive visual proliferation. I’m not sure it’s “new ground” – but it’s beautifully baroque and, as Lucas shows, it definitely messes with/in the iconology of our culture in a wonderful and striking way.

    I agree with Lucas that the video definitely does not work through “intellectual distance.” This is an absorbing aesthetic – like Kim Hyesoon, Hiromi Ito, Aase Berg, and other artists we’ve discussed on the blog.

    Like I said earlier in this thread, our culture, our poetry is using “sincerity” as a model for art; and wishing it wasn’t so, won’t make it go away. Instead of ignoring it, we should “adulterate” it. I feel what’s great about our Montevidayo posts is that we are adulterating “sincerity.” Sincerity is where a lot of stuff is being discussed. It’s not something definite, it’s a space or a terrain where a lot of interesting discussions can be had. Lets “eat” it.

    Also, it’s great to hear from a new person (Jesse) on the blog.

    Sincerely,
    Johannes

  9. Prathna Lor

    Yes, thank you for this.

  10. Lucas de Lima

    Johannes,

    I think what’s key about “Blanco is the truth” versus “Blanco with the truth” is that the first phrase uses a verb. It more forcefully sets truth as well as deceit into motion rather than fixing either one; it does a better job of pointing to the ‘how’ of ontology rather than the ‘what’ of epistemology. What’s powerful to me about language is not that it carries many truths (again, the ‘what’ of being, identity) but that it, maybe like you say, proliferates as and through all kinds of sensations and affects that rupture selfhood.

    To me this proliferation can only be the total destruction of ‘truth’ or ‘sincerity’ through ecology. My problem with sincerity isn’t just that it traditionally doesn’t account for failure, but that it doesn’t do anything to invite failure, or break my body open to ecology. When I think about being sincere, even in my dedication to art, the concept only emphasizes and curtains off my will, my intentions, in my own skin. You can’t turn ‘sincerity’ into a verb the way you can with ‘intensity’. The latter term is way more successful to me in describing the relationship between our capacity to affect and be affected–our mediumicity. Matter cannot be sincere, but it does intensify and become intensified. I recall James, too, saying he preferred it very early in the conversation.

    Rather than cling to or redefine sincerity, I think we’re better off elaborating more imaginative, fertile, and ferosh terms that get us closer to our inhumanity. I don’t think we should ignore sincerity, not at all, but do more to push through its political, aesthetic, and ontological rigidity and rot. I am against sincerity – not in the way that a conceptual writer or something might be, but in the way a monster would be. To describe how I want to write, I need a third way beyond the dichotomies that sincerity will always uphold in my mind. Punishment, as Nietzsche said, creates memory–and to me punishment is what this concept is (as per CeCe McDonald).

    By “breaking new ground,” I thought Jesse was casually referring to Mykki B as a trans rapper. But a trans rapper who doesn’t just let this identity become a stable or isolated thing. That’s pretty new to me. Her video channels history as unpredictably and nonlinearly experineced sensations- so that to understand racism and transphobia is not to interpret a body, but to drown in an ocean stained with yesterday’s slave-trading routes and today’s garbage soups- it’s all inhuman ink.

    Thanks for the comments as always… this has been interesting discussion to continue, especially past its expiration date!

    Monstrously,
    L

  11. adam strauss

    I think George Herbert is an interesting case of sincerity: his poems tend towards the exxxxxtremely ornate/elaborate/artificial with its complex syntax, rhyme-patterns and varience of line-length, but then, to use “The Collar” as an example, the final note will be utterly plain: “And I replied: my Lord” (or something like that).

  12. Kim

    Yes, it seems, or has come to seem to me, having been vexed and witched by the meaning of “sincerity” and its possible implication for the last couple of weeks that the only appropriate, alive, response to it is one of theatrics. Just thinking about the word, or attempting anything creatively, sincerely, fills me with dread. Maybe this has something to do with the mentioned “a foreigner can’t be sincere” or possibly the landscape here, the middle-of-nowhere American puritanism with it’s absolute lack of anything baroque, decorative, excessive, “artsy” (except, I suppose, God, who, if you don’t believe…) It all seems very sincere, and functional. If anything, the art appears in the waste, the little dead industrial towns, who have lost their function, things without purpose. I have wondered about this dread. Also why sincerity must be so serious, even sincerity as mediumicity, sincerity as Dionysian wine-dizzy, possessed and obsessed, like a mystic underground option to the church of sincerity, seems to call for this seriousness. What does it mean to move through art, have art move through you? And how is it different from a deity moving through you, in you? From being “touched” by “high” art? Sincerity, like religion, needs to be serious, it seems to me. It commands silence, contemplation. The most sincere art I can think of, or the most sincere response to art, is nothing. To say nothing, create nothing. To be dead. In a way, sincerity, with it’s “can be anything we want it to be” is not annoying because it’s limiting, but because it’s not limiting enough. It resists being worn, ingested. It’s too big to be exploded. It seeks to be gazed, admired. Theatricality, which depends on restraints, becomes muted. It seems a prerequisite that in order for a work of art to “overflow” it must have a rim to overflow. I haven’t read Dear Ra, Johannes, except for some excerpts, but the very letter-form feels like a kind of exaggerated, familiar to the point of cliche, self-imposed limited sincerity which allows for such an overflowing. Allows for some theatrics. Creating, for me, whether music or writing, never feels particularly sincere, or even serious, but joyous, exhilarating, slightly sinister, shooting for moon with a hangover of shame. That last bit should be setting in any minute now.

  13. Johannes

    Kim,
    I totally feel this traumatic aspect of sincere, which is why I think I want to keep writing about it. Whether we like it or not, this concept is very central to the way a lot of people are reading – and deciding not to read, deciding in fact to exclude – poetry. You mention Dear Ra: Like I noted in my post about it, it’s been repeatedly called “confessional” (ie artless, kitsch, too sincere) and “insincere” (sometimes by the same people). This trauma of the sincere makes me want to not give it up. That might be some S&M-ish quality I have or it might come from reading so many posts/articles that are based on this model that I can’t see the point in ignoring it.

    This of course doesn’t mean I’m defending it. I’ve been criticizing this idea for years. And I wrote that first post of this series very explicitly talking about the problems of interiority and normativity etc. So it’s a bit weird that I now find myself defending it.

    Johannes

  14. adam strauss

    Totally agree that it’s disturbing how people connected to the case didnt see the survival imperative, didn’t see that it’s not at-all difficult to grasp why she would have acted as she did–both because it’s not likely difficult to assume that one will respond heatedly to imminent attack (other issues aside, which is not to say these issues should be put aside), and because it’s quite likely, as this post points out, that her baseline position is one in which it’s a matter of negotiating a frequently explicitly hostile world. In some ways it seems that the unspoken assumption is some subject positions have no right to exist in the first place, even if they’re not inherently problematic.

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