Love, Anger, Madness — Marie Vieux-Chauvet
Why Silicone Valley Can’t Fix Itself — Ben Tarnoff & Moira Weigel
La Polémica de ‘Lolita’ — Laura Freixas
My weekend reading was desultory — snatched moments on planes, trains, and wallowing in the comfort of a hotel bed. At first, these three pieces may seem unrelated (not least, they were each originally written in a different language). They relate to each other though. Not like puzzle pieces but like cairn stones. Placed together, the structure marks a moment in time.
It’s all tied together. What we know and understand about the world depends entirely on the information we receive. The passive construction is usual: we are granted knowledge, told the truth, armed with facts; in plain terms, taught.
What this weekend illuminated to me is the problem with allowing ourselves to be taught. Laura Freixas wrote an op-ed piece for the broadsheet El Pais in which she had the temerity to suggest that Lolita ought not be read uncritically. Cue outcry that she is trying to “censor” a great work of art. Blah blah. Yadda yadda.
Her follow-up, La Polémica de ‘Lolita’, published by Context (ctxt.es) makes the point that the literary canon didn’t come down on tablets from Sinai. If, she says (and I am translating & paraphrasing very roughly) art were simply a product of creative freedom, judged purely by quality, it would be one thing. But it isn’t. The privilege of creating art is fiercely guarded; the privilege of deciding what constitutes real art, even more so. If privileged white men are unable to prevent women/queers/people of colour/immigrants or any other Other from creating, they retain for themselves the right to decree the Other’s work inconsequential.
“Women see ourselves diminished or softened by the falsely benign accusations of childishness, non-universality, of changeability, of sensuality,” wrote magnificent poet and polemicist Audre Lorde. She knew what was up. (I am confident she would also approve of this remark being expanded to include all Others.)
That’s the rigged game we play. White men, like Nabakov are protected by a rich culture of cultural hegemony from even questions. How convenient.
We are taught they are important. The voices of women like French-speaking Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet, who died in exile in the United States after that nation’s brutal interference in Haiti’s affairs, are silenced by being ignored. Until last week, I never heard of Vieux-Chauvet, whose blistering trio of novellas Love, Anger, Madness plays no second to Nabakov’s work for darkness and audacity. I picked up her trail reading Edwidge Danticat, whose own writing I happened upon in an essay collection.
Discovering women writers, especially women of colour, is like this because they weren’t on the curriculum. I remember reading one book by a black writer as an undergraduate — Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. There were a handful of books by Others: Joan Didion, Jeanette Winterson and Louise Erdrich but that’s about it. We read Uncle Tom’s Cabin but nothing by Toni Morrison, bell hooks, or Alice Walker. We didn’t even read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison or W.E.B DuBois.
My understanding of the world, and myself, was shaped by white male authors. I learned to be mighty empathetic, to bend my gut and conscience to accept violence against my kind. It taught me to see things from another’s perspective all right. The trouble is, the status quo does not demand empathy of those who have power and privilege. I doubt it is coincidence that the most open-minded, human men I know are ones who have an experience of Otherness — be it sexual, social or economic.
Which brings me to Why Silicon Valley Can’t Fix Itself — an article elucidating the dangers of the new wave of “tech-humanism”.
Tech humanists deserve credit for drawing attention to one of those problems — the manipulative design decisions made by Silicon Valley.
But these decisions are only symptoms of a larger issue: the fact that the digital infrastructures that increasingly shape our personal, social and civic lives are owned and controlled by a few billionaires. Because it ignores the question of power, the tech-humanist diagnosis is incomplete — and could even help the industry evade meaningful reform.
The academic canon feeds those of us who go to university a distorted version of the world. Social media brings the white, capitalist, Euro-centric, male lens to the masses.
Much has been made of Twitter, etc as platforms for female speech and empowerment. Hashtags abound. What we forget in the fuss is that social media is wholly owned by a tiny cadre of straight, white billionaires. They don’t give a fuck about women/queers/POC or anyone else, except as data points. We are guests on their platforms. They can silence, slander, disenfranchise or betray us at any moment.
The Cambridge Analytica show proves Facebook, et al sell us out all the time, indifferent to consequences. Think about it, Facebook helped elect an unapologetic racist and misogynist to the presidency of the United States;
it pushed a racist Brexit vote which will do untold harm to women, POC, immigrants, and the poor. And we’re supposed to trust the gods of the internet to act in our interests out of their privileged paternalistic altruism?
I don’t know about you, but that gamble is too rich for my blood.
Who should I read this coming weekend? Share your suggestions please!