Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Queer theorist: Marriage is absurdly constraining and increasingly irrelevant

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Annamarie Jagose, a feminist and queer theorist who is the Head of the School of Letters, Art and Media of University of Sydney, has written an article on "long-term gay and lesbian couples that are the shiny new poster boys and girls for same-sex marriage" and why it is not serving "social justice, equity and social belonging." Her reason is that "marriage" itself is irrelevant according to the queer framework. 

I cannot deny there is a sense of vindication on my part reading Jagose's piece because what she has highlighted was exactly the point which I have brought up previously in my conversation with some prominent voices in the Malaysia-Singapore LGBTQ movement. I noted that the LGBTQ movement is largely still living under the shadow of heterosexual monogamous hegemony in their present state of advocacy. Yet I was dismissed as using pseudo-academic queer theory.



Here are some excerpts from Jagose's piece:


Defining marriage in terms of exclusivity and permanence is, at best, a wishful description; it’s an idealised account of how we, individually and collectively, hope marriage might work.... Lesbian and gay communities, and the feminist communities with which they have historically overlapped, have long celebrated the values of sexual diversity over the sexual conformity represented by marriage and the ethical importance of sexual straight-talking rather than the double-standards so frequently observed in marriage’s vicinity.



Rather than admit lesbians and gay men to marriage as currently conceived, we should avow more fully the range of options that characterise a lot of our lives and living arrangements. Why not support and recognise the alternative intimacies that gay communities, among others, have been developing for decades?



In recognising some gay and lesbian relationships as marriages, same-sex marriage emphasises the continued illegitimacy of other sexual arrangements and the continued exclusion of other social actors.



Outside the newly enlarged circle of social approval and privilege afforded by same-sex marriage stand those whose erotic lives are not organised around the values symbolised by marriage: coupledom, monogamy, permanence, domestic cohabitation.

Unmarried mothers, for instance; adulterers; the devotedly promiscuous; sex workers; the divorced; the bigamous and polygamous; those who are not strangers to the august traditions of the dirty weekend or the one-night stand; single people.



Now this ragtag bunch might not seem as worthy of social protection and prestige as the loving, caring, long-term gay and lesbian couples that are the shiny new poster boys and girls for same-sex marriage. But it reminds us to ask something that advocates of same-sex marriage, in their eagerness, forget to ask: why should marriage continue in the 21st century to be a primary mechanism for the distribution of social recognition and privilege?



Important questions of social justice, equity and social belonging cannot get worked out across such an absurdly constrained and increasingly irrelevant category as marriage.
Do read Jagose's whole article.

In Singapore, it has been highlighted by Lisa Li that the local LGBTQ movement has excluded others like Tan Eng Hong when they made Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee the poster boys of the Pink Dot movement. Such advocacy strategy has not only backfire against the movement's philosophy of inclusivity and acceptance but also betray the fact that much of local LGBTQ activism is still living under the shadow of heterosexual-monogamous marriage.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Arts and the Glory of the Lord

Three months ago I was interviewed by a postgraduate student who is currently researching for King’s College London on the relationship between the arts and Christianity in Singapore. Seated beside me were an award-winning poet and two producers of stage drama. I was not in any way as active in the art scene as them. My only contribution in the 3-hours long interview was a theological reflection on pop culture, especially the movies. 

Throughout the interview, we were shown 10 different art pieces such as T. S. Elliot's despairing poem The Hollow Men, Andres Serrano's controversial photograph Piss Christ, Rembrandt's sketch of Abraham dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, and John Lennon's atheistic utopian song Imagine. After the interview, I wonder what is the place for arts in a church?

Some of us relate the arts to high cultures of classical music, renaissance paintings, ballet, and perhaps also to exquisite cigars and vintage wine. Others think that arts are related only to beauty or aesthetic contemplation. 

To Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Reformed philosopher and theologian, the arts are much more than these. They are first and foremost "instruments" which are "inextricably embedded in the fabric of human intention" that equip "us for action" with respect to the world, to other people, and to God. (See his Art in Action [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980], 3-4.) Wolterstorff is saying that arts are something we intentionally make in order to help us to act accordingly in our respective context.

For instance, how food is presented on our plate affects how we act; in this case, it either encourages or discourages our anticipation to eat and savour the food. That’s why a nice photograph of food is so important in restaurant’s menu, on hawker stall’s signboard, and on food blogs. Can you recall the last time when you felt disappointed, if not cheated, when the actual serving was not as tasty as portrayed in the photograph? That‘s how art affects how we re-act.

Talking about food, I remember someone I met over lunch last year. That man seemed to be very familiar with food. While we were waiting for our order, the waiters at the restaurant would occasionally exchange foodie jargon with him. And when the food arrived, that man would describe the uniqueness of each dish to us. He would advise us to begin with certain dish first so that (to paraphrase him) “our palate is not confused.” As one who grew up eating at hawker stalls, I thought that was new. It is common to hear that our mind gets confused; but tongue? Anyway, that noon I had a glimpse into to the art of eating. Certain skillsets or instruments are needed to enjoy food, to help us to act in the context of food appreciation. Only after the lunch that I found out that the man was a Senior Vice President of Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (Shatec Institutes). His job was to perfect the art of eating, the act of savouring food.

The arts are instruments humans intentionally make in order to help us to act accordingly in our respective context. They serve human life. Wherever there are humans, there is art. As Wolterstorff wrote, 
"We know of no people which has done without music and fiction and poetry and role-playing and sculpture and visual depiction. Possibly some have done without one or the other of these; none to our knowledge has done without one or the other of these." (Ibid., 4)  
Art is part of the clothes we wear, food we eat, shopping complexes we patronize, films we watch, games we play, novels we read, songs we listen, hymns we sing, and the myriad of other things we intentionally make. This reminds us of what apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthian 10:31, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

This verse tells us that all that Christians do, including our creation and appreciation of the arts, is done for God’s glory. 

Christians create arts for a different context from non-Christians. "The ultimate distinction," wrote Daniel Siebell, "is not between Christian art and autonomous modern art but between art that…. can bring forth or testify to an embodied transcendence…. and art that denies such transcendence." (God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art [USA: Baker Academic, 2008], 164.) Christians create arts in the context of the sublime glory of the Lord. As the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach is believed to have said, "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul."

Whether the world can see or hear or taste the glory of God through the arts is another matter altogether. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear. Whoever has eyes, let them see. Whoever has tongue, let them taste. However, there will always be those who see yet not perceive, those who hear but not understand, and those who taste but not feel—Like those who heard Jesus’ parables but did not comprehend (Luke 8:8-10). But to the Christians, "The whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6:3).

This reflection is just a sketch. The arts are too huge a subject to be addressed here. Nonetheless, I hope this reflection able to provide some pointers of where to go and what to look for, especially for those whose vocation are in the arts. So the next time you take a photo of your food with a phone, try to find how it can be God-glorifying. Then post it on Facebook or Instagram. Whether or not people will see God’s glory through it is another matter. What is important is that you have created an art for His glory. You have acted accordingly to the context. I think the same principle applies to everyone in other creative act be it in design, dance, fashion, musical, cooking, eating, filming, etc.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Postmodern Text par excellence

Just read a postmodern book par excellence.

It begins with the genealogy of power.
Every chapter is a deconstruction.
Truth is questioned and left unanswered, or seemingly so.
Social categories are questioned and radically overturned.
It contains incredulity towards all metanarratives.
Justice is the un-deconstructible finality.
Every page demands the reader's response.
And it ends with a subversive allegory.

What book?

It comes in many names.

Commonly, it's called The New Testament.