Sunday, September 7, 2008
How Expression and Oppression of Gender Creates Threshold Figures on the Cusp of Reality
“The line in the sand, as the sign of the figural deconstruction of its literal meaning, promises divisibility as well as infinite granules of pathless randomness and essential aberration which can never be simply appropriated to the sure movement of a path whether or not it leads ‘nowhere’. The desert commits itself to the abolition of path.” – Avital Ronnel
Contrary to general belief, the niqab (face veil) was not born of the Prophet Mohamed’s jealous mandate to conceal and thereby trap the beauty of his wives. Covering the face had been in practice long before the angel Gibril snuck up on Mohamed in his mountain cave, squeezing his chest and commanding him to “Read”. The niqab or berga’a (as known by Bedouin) is a protective mask, but not from the lustful male gaze, from corrosive desert wind. Both men and women cover their faces in the desert and the Prophet instructed that men should cover their heads just as women do and rim their eyes with kohl just as the ladies do. Under a niqab it is impossible to distinguish a man’s black-rimmed eyes from a woman’s. The veil is the perfect disguise. And cross-dressing has comprised part of a long history of the transgender role in the hyper sex-segregated Gulf. With the identity-obliterating landscape of the veil, gender becomes little more than the ‘line-in-the-sand’ amidst rippling dunes of cloth. The cross-dresser or drag queen is not a spectacle or marginalized character but another threshold figure between two worlds/genders which exist without a connecting bridge.
So it seems quite natural that video of farkhs (boys in the Greek student-teacher tradition) and other ambiguously sexed individuals would become ubiquitous on the circuits of Bluetooth. Highly sexualized but in a surprisingly accepting manner, “obliterating the boundaries between self and world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world and it obliterates the boundaries between true and false by driving all lived truth below the real presence of fraud ensured by the organization of appearance. One who passively accepts his alien daily fate is thus pushed toward a madness that reacts in an illusory way to this fate by resorting to magical techniques. The acceptance and consumption of commodities are at the heart of this pseudo-response to a communication without response. The need to imitate which is felt by the consumer is precisely the infantile need conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession.”
Dispossession and imitation are both key in the narrative of transArabia because they are motives for self-analysis and fantasy which give direct rise to the refreshing creativity apparent in the videos (prank or sincere) of Gulfis in drag. J.G. Ballard discussed the writer of fantasy as having to impart the fantastic dream world of the page as external equivalents of his own inner world. The creators of these jawal videos, monologues, dances and dares made in the image of self-fashioned gender-fantasies are “symbols taking their impetus from the most formative and confused periods of our lives they are often time sculptures of terrifying ambiguity.”
Ballard’s oft-revisited metaphor of sound and time sculpture seems particularly appropriate in these most staged and accidentally narrative of jawal videos.
In the gulf every man and every woman is on the margin of existence, at the brink where SFW left us, but it is the personas like farkhs who manage to straddle and transcend that boundary by difference and to create media which is truly transgressive and interesting.
The inverted public role of the transgendered individual in the Gulf is a more solid and ‘inscribed’ role than often-even gender ‘norms’ are concerned. It is not uncommon for men and women to have numerous same-sex relationships before any contact with the opposite sex ever occurs. The individual’s connection to the mirror image and subsequent tinting and warping of that mirror is simply suppressing the pole of sameness which magnetizes all interaction on the erotically charged planes of the segregated region. The separation of sexes causes an only partial consideration of the pseudo/haptic world this media circulates within. “Vision as knowledge is the ideology operating around a notion of interiority (secret) which postulates the existence of a central, unshakable certitude.” A pole if you will. “The inner confirmation (with its inner ear, inner eye, inner revelation, inner pursuit and external materialization, external action, external result) validates itself through concepts of originality, substantiality, essentiality, as well as through its opposites: common sense, mass communication’s clarity, visibly measurable outcome, immediate gratification. Things appear to mean something by themselves: it’s a Vision of the Artist. It’s a Political work.” There is a new autonomy of the image instead of enslavement by the unperceived, the veiled, the lie.
And yet even though jawal culture has largely broken down the binary barriers of truth and lies and gender that pushed the Gulf towards widespread and normalized homosexual activity in the first place, it has also given rise to the cementing and fleshing of the image of the trans-threshold figure, giving him/her more cultural resonance and autonomy and than he/she held previously. Now the beautiful man smoking a cigarette on the cell phone screen has attained a sort of ‘transparency, sexual liberation, participation, free expression…and it is unbearable.’ Suddenly, Baudrillard’s speculative discussion of the future of obscenity grafts itself onto the young bodies of the farkhs. “If all this were true we would really be living in obscenity, in the naked truth, in the insane pretension of all things to express their truth. Fortunately the destiny of things protects us for at their culmination, as they are about to verify their existence, they always undo themselves and thereby plunge back into the secret.” And the brief stars of these videos express their truths only for a minute or two before disappearing into obscurity, veiled again, shutting the hotel room door and deleting itself from the hard drive.
The farkhs who once held the power to shock and now absorbed their own electricity, reconciling themselves with their own essence and existence, “They have mocked and surpassed their own definition.” Through their creative, self-reflexive questioning, irony, and playful tone, these videos probe another reality before their creators and subjects cease to have meaning through their external becoming-image. This is the tragedy of the farkh in any culture; they are inevitably labeled as obscenity, a naturalized prejudice. Or as Baudrillard visits it, “an indifference, distance, skepticism and unconditional apathy. Through the world’s becoming-image, it anaesthetizes the surge of adrenalin which induces total disillusionment…And this represents an absolute advance in the consciousness – or the cynical unconscious – of our age.’
No longer needing approval from the dominant ideology or the coercive power of Islamic moralizing, jawal videos have by way of obscuring and anonymizing the subjects in many ways put an end to the need for subversion in the tightly knit web of Gulf society. The omnispectatorship of all videos is a given, a reduction, a preoccupation of everyone. Just as obscenity has become transparent, fetishization has “become minimal and molecular; it is no longer the fetishism of a form, but of a mere formula – subliminal, subhuman. The boundaries of the human and the inhuman are indeed blurring, yet they are doing so in a movement not towards the superhuman but towards the subhuman, towards a disappearance of the very symbolic characteristics of the species. “
Like SFW, Michael Jackson (who spent a few years residing in Bahrain) and the countless other Gulfis creating systems of personal meaning via video in order to self-identify is “unfeasible to imagine because we are in a constant state of flux, a seamless ocean of meaning, a state traditionally considered pathological and diagnosed schizoid: a “smooth space,” which is in Deleuze and Guattari’s principle, “infinite, open, and unlimited in every direction; having neither top nor bottom nor centre”. The self/maker/contributor/spectator that is both creating and residing in this environment has moved beyond the familiar and gone on to the post. Transcended to the akhira, SFW is on the cusp of. It is not difficult to realize that the ‘self’ native to this environment cannot be the human self we are familiar with. This ‘post-human’ is in a constant state of de/reconstruction and the threshold figures apparent in the veiled man or gutra (the checkered red thing) sporting woman are the gestating post-human.
“While such conception of a post human to come may appear fantastic, the undeniable fact is that the postmodern condition is constantly expanding its reach, erasing boundaries, transforming nations, and dissolving temporal horizons. “Here as elsewhere, in our ordinary everyday life we are passing from the extensive time of history to the intensive time of an instantaneity without history made possible by the technologies of the hour”
Technologies that have transported the gulf out of this world and onto the next, creative/destructive inanimate objects, portals, black holes, Bermuda triangles. Such is the pull and draw of the object, the jawal, the new outlets it offers us through displacement of the mind from the body. The jawal utilizes, “strategies of displacement to defy the world of compartmentalization and the systems of dependence it engenders, while filling the shifting space of creation with a passion named wonder.” A wonder all but lost on a generation of gamers and jawal users steeped in Nintendo-lore and viral video.