Monday, December 15, 2014

The Trouble with University's Good Intentions

On the morning of Orientation for the University of Iowa, I stood, along with hundreds of other students in line waiting for my Welcome Packet.  When I reached the front of the line, instead of handing me my packet, the girl behind the counter said, “Oh, my goodness, you have to come with me Riiight Now!”  Confused, I followed.  She led me over to a table labeled “Multi Cultural and Diversity Center”.  There, the girl handed my packet to a woman and left.  “Welcome, you must be Melissa Holland,” the new woman said.  “We just wanted to make sure that you were aware of all the opportunities offered to students like yourself here at the University of Iowa.”  She paused to open my packet and pull out a piece of paper with a map on it.  “This is where the Diversity Center is located.  It is very important that you come visit us today.  We offer many programs including a range of tutoring opportunities that are tuned to your needs.”  She then placed a gold star sticker over the Diversity Center, smiled and handed me my packet.

 Later that day, as I was forced into a cramped room where we were told to “fill out our schedule”, the graduate student assigned to help us came over and stood behind me as I filled in my scantron circles.  She leaned over and softly spoke, as if no one else could hear, ”If you need any help, just let me know.”  She then smiled and continued to stand behind me leaning up against the wall.

Hours later, my day was almost over.  All that was left, was for me to have a meeting with the head of the English department and have my schedule approved. I had spent about two weeks researching professors and designing a schedule, so I felt prepared.  However, I hadn’t prepared for the meeting at all.  As soon as I walked in, I was handed a list of recommended classes.  Of the classes that were offered 75 percent of them began with the words African American.   The rest included Native American Studies, Cubancentric, Jazz ect.  You get the picture.  The woman behind the desk looked over my schedule and then looked at me.  “You know, there is a poetry class similar to the one on your schedule taught by this wonderful teacher who just joined us.  She is African American and very intelligent and exciting.”  I told her I did not wish to change.  She then leaned closer and said, “You know, many professors enjoy having students like you in class.”  Like what, I asked her.  “ You know,  with your type of experience.”  Oh, you must mean my experience of taking care of myself for the last eight years, or my extensive travel experience, or that I am an Iowa City Native.  I said and left the room.

What do all of these experiences have in common?  Stigmatization.  Even though people don’t see stigmatization as racism because it is not directly linked to hatred, aversion, or even distrust, stigmatism can affect societal behavior towards people.  The stigmatization was that because I present as African American, I must need tutoring, help filling things out, and that my interests lie more firmly in African American or minority history, literature, and culture.  Jews, are another group of people who have endured vast stigmatization.  In the Middle Ages, the stigmas were all negative.  It was thought that Jews were more likely to steal, lie, commit murder, submit to the Devil’s seduction, and were unclean.  Some of these stigmas prevail today, and have grown throughout time.  For instance, most people think that if you are Jewish, then you must come from money, are Anti-American, and will cheat you if they can.  Throwing off stigmas such as these are very difficult to do.   More than anything it requires large groups of people refusing to acknowledge stigmas and to start looking at each person as an individual instead of a representative as a whole.  Unfortunately, my experience is not singular.  While the University may have thought they were reaching out to me as a student, they ended up isolating me from the get go, making me feel different from the other students who were standing in line, and making me feel uneasy about the University’s view of students of color or otherwise.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The "Other" on the Internet

In “The Spectral Jew”, Steven Kruger explores the role of Jews in English literature and why they continue to appear even after their expulsion from England in 1290. In medieval English literature the Jews had a role to play in the consolidation of Christian identity and the support of Christian hegemony. This is accomplished by creating a binary relationship; there is Christianity, and there is the “other”. In the online community, on image boards particularly, there is again this use of the “other” for a similar purpose.
Image boards are a type of online forum in which anonymous discussion is held through messages posted with attached images. It’s the equivalent of an electronic bulletin board, with users carrying out discussions by “posting” new material to it. Originating in Japan, these boards tend to be heavily influenced by Japanese culture, but have taken on a variety of other cultural perspectives. Particularly unique is the development of contained subcultures, which exist only online in particular subsections of image boards.
Image boards borrow heavily from one another, and all possess the same system of subsections, which delineate where particular subjects of discussion are to be held. There has been an emerging trend in which image board subsections that focus on politics and news related subject matter have been heavily mixed with racist content and discussion. The anonymous communication system of image boards has been notorious for creating intentionally offensive content purely for the purpose of causing upset (trolling). The content is often horrifying to the target audience, but members of these communities find it amusing because they know it has no basis in true belief on the side of its creators.
However, in the politically focused subsections on these sites is a strange dialogue between people who pretend to be racist for the purpose of amusement and genuine members of white nationalist websites. The result is a bizarre discussion of political and racist subject matter that is a mixture of the fraudulent and the genuine. Though the racism extends to many different peoples, the overwhelming focus in is anti-Semitism. The discussions, whether they are broadly political or focused on particular news stories, have an anti-Semitic charge.
As in medieval English literature, Jews function here as the “other”. Their otherness is used to consolidate identity by defining what is not a part of that identity. In medieval literature there is Christianity and there is the “other”. On these image boards, there is the white race/white community and there is the “other”. Though the antisemitic content is usually posted in an off hand manner or in a context of humor, there are instances in which it can be extremely aggressive and at times even macabre.
Though the Jews most frequently function as the "other" in these communities, they are not the only race suffering horrible slander. The ethos of these image boards is adapted to contextualize current events in a manner that promotes white power by subverting nonwhite peoples. A current event that has been used in this manner is the outbreak of ebola in western Africa. Ebola has been anthropomorphized as young girl, in the style of an anime character; she has been dubbed "ebola-chan" (chan is a Japanese suffix used to describe a young person or a child and has a connotation of cuteness). People will create posts attached to pictures of her with comments directed at character of ebola-chan herself: "We love you ebola-chan, destroy them all!", "Good luck ebola-chan", "Keep up the good work!", etc. The death of nonwhites in Africa is a strengthening of the white race; the subversion of the "other" strengths the white community and the character of ebola-chan is its icon of this process. Though the context may have changed, the use of the "other" has continued.

Getting Freaky With Medieval Literature

In The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, the narrator tells of some mysterious races and monsters he observes during his journey. Many of the races and monsters he meets can be related to the characters on the television show American Horror Story: Freak Show. 

To begin, Sir John Mandeville tells of the land of the Amazons, which is solely inhabited by women. He describes the Amazons as "...noble and wise warriors...." who are respected by men (neighboring kings) and who are valuable warriors. In American Horror Story: Freak Show, there is a character by the name of Amazon Eve, who is also somewhat of a noble warrior on the show. Much like the Amazons described by Mandeville, Amazon Eve is respected by her comrades; even though she is a woman, she offers protection and aids in fickle situations. She also offers motherly affection to some of her fellow freaks, which is similar to the Amazons- even though they possessed manly qualities, they still raised children (female ones, anyway).

"There are many different kinds of people in these isles. In one, there is a race of great stature, like giants, foul and horrible to look at; they have one eye only, in the middle of their foreheads. They eat raw flesh and raw fish..." This quote from Mandeville begins his descriptions of the "monsters" he comes in contact with throughout his travels. The description given depicts similar aspects of the character Meep in American Horror Story: Freak Show. For instance, Meep is known on the show for biting off animal heads, which coincides with Mandeville saying the monsters he saw "eat raw flesh and raw fish." Furthermore, his grotesque teeth and slightly abnormal physical features made him "foul and horrible to look at."

"In another there are people of small stature, like dwarfs, a little bigger than pygmies..." Ma Petite in American Horror Story: Freak Show is a tiny dwarf woman. The tiny people Mandeville described seemed a little more terrifying, for he says they hissed and had a hole for a mouth. Ma Petite's character is actually very charming and sweet, but she is viewed as abject because of her small size.

"In another isle there are people whose ears are so big that they hang down to their feet like four-footed beasts..." Although there are no characters with huge ears in American Horror Story: Freak Show, there are characters who have excessive body parts. Jimmy (depicted top right) is known as Lobster Boy, for his fingers are fused together, giving them the appearance of lobster claws.

 The picture to the left shows Bette and Dot. They are considered freaks because they are Siamese sisters who share a body, or rather their body has two heads.
Paul, who is shown in the bottom picture at the right, has deformed arms and fingers that resemble flippers, or webbed feet.

"There is another isle where the people are hermaphrodite,
 having the parts of each sex, and each has a breast on one side..." When this character is first met, Desiree claims to be a hermaphrodite. Desiree does not have a single breast on each side like the hermaphrodites Mandeville described, but she does in fact have an extra breast. So, not only is she abject because she is considered both male and female (until she found out that her "penis" was just an abnormal looking clitoris), but her extra breast makes her sexually excessive.

Many more characters in American Horror Story: Freak Show can also be related to characters in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The comparisons and resemblances between the two exemplify that qualities viewed as abject in the Middle Ages are still viewed as abject today. Abnormalities, mostly in appearance, are considered fascinating, horrifying, and entertaining, which is why characters such as dwarf people or Amazons were the topics in literature back then and are still the topics in popular culture today.

Are Bodybuilders Becoming Monsters?

At the sport's beginning, weight training was focused on aesthetically perfecting the human form. Bodybuilders strove to look like Grecian Gods with the proportions of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.

Who could forget that Arnold used to look like this?

Today's bodybuilders are a completely different breed of human altogether. The men who win competitions these days are gigantic. They still focus on symmetry, but only between between each muscles parallel match. Instead of working towards a symmetry between chest, waist, and hips they work entirely toward stacking muscle for the sake of stacking muscle. Many of these athlete's muscles have muscles.

This is the current Mister Olympia. I'll let you make your own comments.

So what's going on here? Is it steroids? No, Arnold was doing steroids too. Steroids have been integral to the sport since its conception. Is our standard of beauty changing? Again, no. We could take a poll but I'd be willing to bed that only a tiny subset of humanity considers this man and men of similar bodily persuasions sexually attractive. Former Guinness Book of World Record's holder for worlds largest biceps, Greg Valentino, said in the documentary "Bigger, Faster, Stronger" that he was much more used to be getting approached by men than by women. He didn't mean he was approached by homosexual men though. He said that guys would often ditch their girlfriends to talk to him about his biceps. Usually, he said, the girls weren't impressed.

No one knows how he wipes.

So why do it? Like the Giants of the middle ages these men are both celebrated and reviled for their excess. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted that it's entirely possible that people won't be attracted to him. He once said, "I just use my muscles as a conversation piece, like someone walking a cheetah down 42nd Street". Today's bodybuilders have this option but even more so. Who wouldn't stop to gawk at a walking 300 pound brick of muscle. These men aren't trying to fit a standard of beauty. Their goal is to become a spectacle.

In "Of Giants: Sex, Monsters and the Middle Ages", JJ Cohen writes: "The giant is encountered in a performance of masculinity as necessary as it is obscene"(xii). But he also points out that the giants form is not reducible to some pure state of masculinity because the giants bodies are described in the same language that medieval writers used to categorize women. Giants then are not important in and of themselves. They exist instead as a measuring stick of human form. Bodybuilders perform a similar function in our society.

One need only look at Terry Crews performance as Sgt. Terry Jeffords, on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, to see feminine traits that JJ Cohen mentions. Crews plays the caring boss/dad who shelters his team as if they are his family. Despite his oft referenced size his character has more of a mother hen vibe than anything else. This too raises a question. Are men only not stigmatized for being caretakers if they're outwardly a projection pure masculinity or are we only comfortable with characters of Terry's size if they're feminized in some way?

The implications in either event are as paradoxical for us today as they were for writers in the middle ages. This is why the embodiment of a giant so subjective.

Merlin: A Weasley?

Inspired by earlier posts, I, too, delved into my extensive knowledge of Harry Potter and came up with an interesting connection concerning dragons. Appearing for the first time in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, dragons play an essential role, both as elements of danger/ fear, adventure and as a way to identify outsiders to the human race. Harry and the rest of the competitors are challenged to defeat various dragons in order to become champions of the Twi-Wizard tournament. Hagrid, Hogwart's groundskeeper, a giant in his own right, attempts to tame the most feared dragon and fails miserably, a compassionate endeavor that only serves to highlight his separation from the human race. Finally, we get our first glimpse of the infamous dragon-wrangling, eldest Weasley brother, Charlie, who functions as an exotic within the normal wizarding world and works primarily from Romania instead of living in the United Kingdom like the rest of his family.

After re-watching the 4th film, particularly the scenes in which Harry and the rest of the competitors fight the dragons, I was reminded of Merlin's prophecy concerning the infamous battle between the red and the white dragons, or metaphorically speaking, between the British and the Saxons. For the people of medieval Britain, the dragon functions in much the same way that it does in Harry Potter. The dragon is a representative of evil, portrayed as terrible and dangerously fierce and in slight relation to the serpent.

-      Ultimately, in both cases, the dragon is used to induce fear and as the embodiment of all things monstrous, or to be more specific, the antithesis to humanity. They are incredibly power symbols not only because of their brute physical strength and connection with magic but because of their extreme otherness. Similar to the effect of giants, they heighten our awareness of our humanity, insecurity and they are the tangible representation of fragile mortality despite "divine" Arthurian power or in Harry's case, a magic wand.  

What's the Deal With Jesters?

I've been called a goofball a good number of times in my life, and I usually don't take offense to it.  It's not really an insult in most social contexts ("Look at that goofball in the silly hat!" is more common than "Some goofball took my social security number and is currently goofing around with my credit score," for example), and I've developed from a goofy child to a goofy man-child over the past 22 or so years of my life.  It's a role that I'm comfortable with, and I'm fortunate to have been born in a modern era of goofballs, because if I were born in Medieval times, It'd be much harder to impress royalty and commonfolk with stories about being a chubby middle-schooler with an absentee father.  Most preferred songs, magic, or juggling, which may as well be magic because only children and tourists believe in it.

An elaborate illusion.  You can't fool me, guy!

  After researching jesters, I learned that medieval jesters fell into two categories: the licensed fool and the natural fool.  The licensed fool was allowed to be goofy and obnoxious by decree of the court, and was usually employed for a long period of time, while the natural fool was a divine doofus that audiences could recognize as a unique and interesting personality that wasn't putting on airs. Both licensed and natural fools performed magic and acrobatics, told stories, and kept royalty in check by poking fun at them and their guests.  However, jesters were careful about telling jokes at the king's expense, because if they went too far they'd be scolded or whipped or thrown out of the court altogether.  

"Please don't hurt me. I'm doing my best."
  The jester's outfit is an iconic symbol of goofdom, but they didn't always wear a coxcomb hat with bells and a motley coat.  Jesters would sometimes wear the same outfits that servants wore, and would sometimes wear a hood with ass's ears instead of the coxcomb hat we all know and love.  

"Uhh, jester hat? This is a coxcomb hat. I may look like a fool, but you sound like a fool."
 I thought that jesters had gone extinct before researching for this blog post, but there was one modern jester named Jesse Bogdonoff, who served as court jester/financial advisor to Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who was the king of Tonga from 1965 to 2006.  Bogdonoff was a fool in both title and behavior, because in his role as financial adviser, he wiped out the Tongan Trust Fund (by giving the entire portfolio to an asset management company that would end up stealing it) and was sued by the government of Tonga for fraud and negligence.  He fled Tonga in 2004 and now works in California as a clinical therapist and hypnotist.  
Jesse Bogdonoff, wearing a coxcomb hat


Roll The Dice, See Some Medieval Monsters!

Over the course of the semester, we have reiterated time and time again that a multitude of media we see today is influenced by medieval literature.  From the connection a hero has with their weapon, to racial depictions of other races, to religious organizational structure (as seen in A Song of Ice and Fire), medieval culture’s impact remains on our video games, comics, novels, TV, and films.  However, in noting the various connections between the medieval period and narrative works today, we have ignored one of the most notable past times of the modern era.  While Gary Gygax’s Dungeon’s and Dragon’s borrows heavily from a variety of different works in the fantasy genre, many of the monstrous races seen in works that we have read are directly represented within the most famous role playing game of all time.

Dungeons and Dragons differentiates from its other media counterparts.  Unlike the constricted nature that a linear story has, the ability of player choice in a Dungeons and Dragons game forces the game to have a variety of different opponents and obstacles.  If confronted by a fork in the road, a dungeon master (the referee/storyteller) must have each direction prepared with challenges for the other players to overcome.  As a result, there are a variety of unique monsters in Dungeons and Dragons.

One unique monster is the Ettin.  The Ettin is a giant like creature with two heads, each of which is capable of independent thought, and each controls one arm for attacking. The left head directs the left arm and right head directs the right arm during combat. The two heads disagree constantly, but will work together when there is a common threat.  On the scale of morality, they are chaotic evil.  While the two headed nature of the giant is not something we have seen (so far) in our class, we have seen several instances of giants present, such as Arthur’s encounter with the giants who collected beards.  The ettin is physically empowering and pure evil.  His function as chaotic evil and powerful stature is similar to the article “Of giants sex monsters and the middle ages”, where defeating such a worthy opponent gives the characters (or in this case players) a sense of triumph and accomplishment.

Another medieval monster that is found in the game is the Tarrasque, a dragon with a lion's head, six short legs like a bear's, an ox-like body covered with a turtle shell, and a scaly tail that ended in a scorpion's sting . While we have not read the story in this class, its themes are similar to other Christain converting tales we have read, such as The King of Tars.  According to legend, the king of Nerluc had attacked the Tarasque with knights and catapults, but it had no effect.  Saint Martha found the beast and charmed it with hymns and prayers instead of attacking it, and led the tamed Tarasque to the city. The people, terrified by the monster, attacked it when it came close to them. The monster offered no resistance and died there. Martha then preached to the people and converted many of them to Christianity.  The townspeople then changed the name of the town to Tarascon.  In Dungeons and Dragons, the game respects this history, stating that “The tarrasque can be slain only by raising its nonlethal damage total to its full normal hit points +10 (or 868 hit points) and using a wish or miracle spell to keep it dead.”  Essentially, the only way to kill the tarrasque is by calling to a divinity, just as Saint Martha called to her Christian god.

One of the great things about Dungeons and Dragons are the rich influences of its source material.  From Giants to Tarrasque’s, from swords to practices of the time period, the game functions as an interesting modern look on a time period that existed a long time ago.

Your Inner Monster

In The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, we find monsters of varying sizes and shapes.  From the face filled chests of the Blemmyes to the one legged Sciapods, these monsters all exist far away from “monster free” England.  To encounter these monsters, one must impart on a journey crossing many lands, and leave the safety of England behind.  In the Middle Ages, monstrosity was marked by distance.  The farther away from England, the more peloric the monsters become.  All of the monsters have one thing in common though, and that is their resemblance, in part, to the human form.  Each deformity is an extension or revision of physical human possibility.  The deformaties, ( a dogheaded cynochepali) stand as representations of differing cultures and practices, and represent the fear of otherness.  Any human who encountered one of these “monsters” would be advised to engage in combat as form of purification and cleansing.  While the Middle Ages focused on the external Monster, the contemporary world is more concerned with the internal monster. 

Today, many of the “monsters” that exist within the folklore focus on “hidden” deformities.  Witches, vampires, even zombies, present as human, yet are triggered by events emotional and physical to reveal their monstrousness.  The monsters of today are many times endowed with a code of ethics, and often fight internally against their “monstrosity” to preserve their humanity.  In other words, monsters of today are often portrayed as beings that are reverent of the human condition.  One such monster that has captured today’s imagination in popular fiction and film is the modern day vampire.  The authors of today such as Anne Rice use their vampires to explore internal questions of God’s purpose, morality, vice, and justice.  Vampires such as Anne Rices’ Louis are portrayed as suffering human inhabitants of non-human bodies.  Louis constantly looks inside of himself for guidance, rather than reacting solely to the physical environment around him.

Unlike Mandeville’s monsters, the modern day monsters co-exist with humans.  They are unmarked physically unless triggered in some way and so are undiscernible from any other human.  Within this environment, humans end up creating relationships, often amorous with the monsters which complicates the issue of monstrosity.  If you can copulate with a monster, are they of your species, or are you part monster yourself?  Unlike the flight or fight recommendation of the Middle Ages, there is a call for internal investigation with today’s monsters.  A witch or werewolf, by today’s standards may come in handy as a protector.  Their “deformity” used for good, where a Blemmye is viewed as useless fit for nothing more than target practice.

Both Medieval and current monsters focus on overt sexuality, but one focus’ on the physical animalistic form of sexuality, while the other, the mental form.  Melville gives us men whose testicles reach their knees, and amazons who carve off a breast and keep men for their pleasure.  Today’s vampire focuses on the art of seduction, capturing our desire through imagination and intense pleasure rather than aweing us with size or shape.

 We are asked to search within ourselves for our similarities with Monsters rather than our differences, so much so, that the desire to engage with today’s monsters creates a desire to take on their physical differences rather than annihilate them.