by Lucas de Lima 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.
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?