Friday, February 28, 2014

How To Be A Nice Person On The Internet And Not Speak For Others

this is a response to some discussion threads happening on twitter recently among some queer games people that center around a bunch of tweets made by a transwoman, which i have quoted in full below. the tweets led to a discussion about exclusivity in queer circles, in this case the queer gaming one - and the perceived endless infighting and divisiveness among it. i talked a little bit about some of my experiences with this a couple months ago on this blog, for those interested.

the below quote will probably be upsetting and/or triggering for some to read. and so i'm going to place a TRIGGER WARNING! on this whole article for that reason, for that and for some of the things i'm bringing up later. i understand that several people might not want them to be brought up again, but i think it's important to look at the language of the offending tweets for the ideas they represent so that we can better understand how these things often manifest themselves. i'm not interested in singling out or calling out the person who posted this or saying they're a bad person, or whatever. i'm not going to name them either, and i don't believe it's important to anyway. i also understand that people can be inclined to say more upsetting things than they usually would in the midst of angry tweeting, but that doesn't change the overall sentiment, which is something i've heard multiple people i know express to varying degrees.

note that i cleaned up some of the spelling and shorthand of the tweets a bit so it's more obvious what's being talked about:

for anyone who hasn't spent tons of time around angry, jaded trans women, here's a vocabulary term you might not know: "theys"

"theys": white skinny FAAB (female-assigned at birth) intellectually-genderqueer women's studies students who think being trans is a contest to have the most intellectually rigorous gender identity, who experience masculinity as a fun thing they can put on to experience liberation and privilege, but can still totally fit themselves into women's spaces, and for whom "visibility" is the foremost goal, who think they're more oppressed than trans women because not everyone understands their gender.

The Theys think that because They're trans, They're not implicated in transmisogyny.

In reality, They're the most direct descendants of the original post-gender transmisogynistic early feminists.

Now, just as I hate all men but have a couple men in my life that I love and trust deeply, I also dislike Theys but have some in my life.

In fact, one of my best friends is a They.

That said, my rules of preemptively disliking and distrusting Theys has always paid off. I recommend it to all women, especially trans women.

"theys" as a descriptor strikes a pretty strong chord, since it's the most direct way to signify an other ("they", by definition, signifies a group of people who is not you) and it bears an uneasy resemblance to xenophobic language used against immigrants and PoC, especially when the author says their "rules of preemptively disliking and distrusting Theys has always paid off". in this case, it's also a snarky way to redefine and disrespect the language of people who choose to identify by "they". By portraying "theys" as privileged, skinny, white women's studies majors it also presents a caricature of queer people that is similar to the one portrayed hatefully outside the West as the embodiment of queer culture - endless privilege, excess, entitlement, and self-righteousness. the choice of language is what probably makes this the one of the more extreme examples of this sentiment that i've seen expressed online.

still, i'm going to have to admit this is a sentiment, however ugly it's worded here, that i've felt in the past was true a lot of the time - even if i never really openly expressed it (at least on these terms). there is a general sense among many transwomen i've known that women's spaces are traditionally built as a haven for "FAAB" people, not for us and our concerns, and therefore there's less willingness to trust or identify with things that happen in women's spaces. this is a very valid concern, because it's a thing that still seems to happen. even if transwomen are now treated with much more respect and compassion than we have been in the past, there's still a lot of misunderstanding and white-washing of our experiences in ways that can be, quite frankly, insulting and dehumanizing. there's often nearly not enough room in these spaces to allow for differences of experience to where every individual person feels comfortable being themselves. and so maybe transwomen dominate queer game and tech spaces, but we are much less of a presence elsewhere. and we have much less likelihood of being accepted by and taken into dominant cultural narratives that traditionally fetishize "FAAB" people's bodies but still (in the end) will probably see us as disgusting impostors.

but also - creating an exclusive community to cater to our supposed experiences as transwomen doesn't do much of anything fix the problem of spaces lacking inclusivity! in actuality, it even excludes a lot of transwomen! there are many different axes of oppression, after all. what about race, what about immigration status, what about disability, what about sexual trauma, what about income level, what about body image, what about culture? you may think you're doing a great service by righteously speaking for people who fit your particular group, when in reality you're speaking for maybe 10-20% of the people who do. you might not, in fact, be very aware or conscious of their experiences at all. but that sure seems like a lot if you're well-connected on social media! and so the idea of a universal transwoman "experience" may be a nice thing to entertain to feel connected to others with some similar experiences, but it starts to evaporate the more deeply you go into exploring all these different axes. people continue to feel excluded, and then they create their own exclusive communities catering more to their specific concerns, and then they make someone else who fits some but not all of those categories feel excluded again. and it just goes on, and on.

and let's talk about the fetishization of "FAAB" bodies. if you feel like you find both "female" and "male" cultural conceptions of gender incredibly limiting because of the way they've directly enforced an idea of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and presentation on you, what should you do? accept "i am a woman", or "i am a man" and all the implications that may or may not come with that, both internally (to you) and externally (to any other people)? or maybe you choose a term that at least, hopefully, somewhat better expresses your indifference towards these narrow conceptions of gender that are having a limiting effect on who you are and what you can do. and maybe that term isn't perfect, but maybe it does help you escape some of the ideological barriers placed around you.

i understand (firsthand) that gender dysphoria is a different thing altogether from just feeling alienation from abstract cultural constructions of gender, yet they're so often so deeply intertwined that it can be hard for many to understand how and why they're different. i identify as a woman, but i fully admit that the idea of "woman" wasn't shoved down my throat growing up in the way that it is for FAAB people, and because of that i was allowed more of an opportunity to create my own definition of what that means for me. i also feel like i probably fit the stereotype of "woman" better than a lot of people - i often feel much more comfortable with a more traditionally "femme" appearance. FAAB people are often taught that there are things you just can't or shouldn't do, because you're supposedly this idea of a "woman", which supposedly means you just can't do some things - like big creative things, or science or mathy things! i experienced something much different - feeling like i had to be a Big Deal and Super Smart for anyone to care about me or anything i said at all. both of these are oppressive ideas to implant into people early on, and it's often hard for one side to see the other's experience as being truly oppressive.

speaking of bodily dysphoria, one very big reason a person who identifies as genderqueer but who does not experience gender dysphoria in the way trans people do might do so because of past trauma involving their bodies - like, say, rape. this is NOT to say that all of their identity is necessarily a response to that trauma - but that it can be a factor a lot of people overlook because of outward signs of privilege. i understand that this is a dangerous issue to bring up because it's used to shame and dismiss a lot of queer identities, but i want to remind others that by dismissing FAAB folks in the way the original tweet does, they might be participating in rape culture. bodily dysphoria is a thing that happens to a lot of people for many different reasons, not just ones related to a particular gender orientation. so some "FAAB" folks may not feel like a "man" in the full-on gender dysphoria sense, but they may desire to have the sort of power that was inflicted on them instead of feeling like a powerless victim (as well as experiencing less ideological barriers placed on their identity, etc). and so, adopting a genderqueer identity might allow them to feel less like another victim of rape culture.

when dominant culture fetishizes your body, and fetishizes this very idea of "femininity", and conditions males to see women as sex objects and prizes, i can see why you might have some pretty fucking legitimate concerns - even if you not necessarily experiencing gender dysphoria - for not wanting to identify as a "female"! especially when it is directly triggering to a very real traumatic experience you've undergone. this is something people who've not had this experience will, fundamentally, just not understand. this is also an 100% real and valid way to respond, and does absolutely not mean you're "making up" these feelings or anything like that, nor does it mean you're not experiencing dysphoria for many other reasons. as a survivor, there is nothing i could say that would ever really come close to describe the enormity of pain i've experienced. and, of course, i'm not saying that plenty of MAAB (male-assigned at birth) people don't experience rape too. particularly transwomen. i'm one of those people, after all. but because of that, i feel like i have more insight into how rape culture can define the terms of this discussion than people who haven't gone through it do.

let's talk about terms, also. i understand we make FAAB and MAAB distinctions so we can talk about existing power dynamics. but like, it certainly doesn't feel good for me to be described as MAAB, and i can't imagine most transmen feeling good about being called FAAB either. and so maybe they are nebulous distinctions that only exist because of cultural conditioning and we shouldn't be giving credence to them? maybe by using them we end up falling back into the "Language of Our Oppressors" category?

look - many people feel excluded, and many people experience horrifying levels of pain and suffering at the hands of a dominant culture that erases, oftentimes actively destroys their being, their autonomy, their existence. and so maybe we can have a little empathy and acknowledge that it isn't always about us - and we even may be complicit in someone else's suffering on one of those axes we hadn't thought about? maybe we can also recognize that making generalizations or broad statements about the experiences of us and others is what directly creates the sorts of environments that lead to exclusion and infighting?

instead, as a rule, whenever making broad statements, how about we just always assume there are any number of people outside our own experience who will have insight on many issues that we, fundamentally, just lack? this is something we sure don't like seem to like doing, particularly in the "first world", because it feels better not to think about it.

and hey, okay, it's great that you feel empowered for saying that thing but maybe your empowerment doesn't have to always involve making someone else feel like a piece of shit! it'd be nice to see a lot more effort made to understand the nature of those experiences outside our own, to understand that they are not an attack on our being and to not speak for them, or over them, or defensively in reaction to them, because we recognize the kind of spaces that creates: ones defined by infighting, exclusion, silencing, repression, emotional outbursts, defensiveness, misdirected rage, and hurt feelings. this goes for anyone and everyone. it doesn't feel good for anyone involved to have those spaces, so why do we keep making them that way? we need to listen and empathize to create the kind of spaces we wish had been created for us. and that means: have some fucking respect.

Friday, February 21, 2014

simulated memories

here i go, trying to Write Something For A Website again.

but those words - they don't come. words that do come, come slowly and unsurely. with trepidation, i try slowly rolling back over doing something that seemed to come so easily before, but i hardly get anywhere. shoveling ground that can't be shoveled anymore. the ground is hard as rock, all frozen over. things look strange and different now. i see people i don't recognize, or their faces seem to have changed somehow. the landscape is strange and alien. i feel sick all of a sudden. i get more headaches. i'm unsure what i was really saying or building up before was of any good use, or if it wasn't just me puffing myself up. wasn't i just hoping for something, some recognition? something to get me out of the hole i'm in? someone to save me? ...huh? where am i? what is all this?

hey, here i am, somewhere, so i might as well try. what else do i have? survival comes before all else, in a panicked frenzy. nervously laughing at the sun and the sky, hoping they don't catastrophically fall. and yet even survival is just barely met. the light is much too bright outside for me to look at for very long.

i get images, like this image that keeps coming back from the beginning of episode 2 level 4 of Wolfenstein 3D:

it seems so gray, looking at it again, and so empty. you thought it was yellow, the color of the ceilings in a lot of the other levels. or dark green. or i thought it was yellow. you, i, they become the same.

hahaha, you're so stupid for thinking about this. but you would. your mind would go there, you little bitch. you're so pathetic. what about all the people who didn't have what you had, you fucker? they didn't have fucking videogames to escape into. you and your fucking simulated memories.

in this particular area, there are two sides of the hall, yet i specifically see the image of the left side in my mind's eye. the left side is where the exit lies, and on the north side of the map. is that what it is? an interesting opening idea, and certainly memorable because of the zombie you shoot at the start (off-screen). is it that zombie? he's evil, he's scary, he's unknown. he's grotesque, and he only appears at times. the slimy vines on the walls are an unknown. or are you confusing the green slime on the walls with the vines on the purple walls in the game? those vines, they're a representation of something, something else. they tell me something else. they're telling me to think, but i don't want to think. hahaha, that's not true, i say. i'm better than this. i will not let it get me down. i will not do this again. i refuse. i'm putting my foot down.

but then, inevitably, there's an unbearable darkness - one that i keep wanting to cry when i try and think about it too deeply. it's not there when i look back at it now on the outside, but it's still there somewhere. i want to point it out frantically and shout that it's there. why can't anyone else see it? where is this coming from? i remember that specifically playing this level is attached to a traumatic memory of mine. a dark time, dark thoughts. one that i would rather not explore anymore. one i would rather not think about. the barbed, scaly tendrils of time close up around it and rapidly overtake it in a dark fog as i recede outward from it. i cannot smile and act like i'm still there, that little child. the sadness comes, and it is overwhelming. i have to close the door after too long.

over time, things should fade. and yet here it still is staring me in the face, just as intently as ever. i can't even crane my neck to look away for a second. it is bolted in place.

it's not just this space, it's all of them. they're all there. episode 5 level 4, the completely symmetrical level. haha. the beginning. mister officer. the police guy, the fucking blue one. he has a machine gun. he's gonna shoot me. more and more of him, the same everywhere. always the same. but they're just meat. not even meat, digital meat. weird, funny little impulses. they don't mean anything, really. 

what are these spaces? why are there here? i look for a reason, but none comes. i cry at the infinite abyss, and people laugh or are confused, or they laugh, confused. they don't know and they never will.

it's not about me. it's about something else entirely. product worship. so pathetic. no real memories. no real hopes or dreams. always inside a machine. always living life inside a machine, because outward life doesn't exist. it's horrible. you're just part of a fucking stupid culture. a fake fucking culture. a subculture. don't try to look for support, cause you're not gonna get it. don't try and understand, because it can't be understood. it's all about anger, and product worship. it's all about the hatred, and the gnashing of teeth. the beast that snarls and howls and pulls apart the flesh those that get in its way. those people fight for their simulated memories tooth and nail but you can't fight for yours, because they seem so stupid and indefinite. so silly. so ridiculous. so childish.

everything's looping back on itself. circles and circles and circles again. circles and circles and got to stop spinning.

try to resurrect, rebuild. reconstruct these memories. try not to laugh at myself for how silly this all is, and how silly i am. how stupid must i be. i can't speak, not like i used to. instead of grasping at anything and everything i can, the truths now seem to float above my head, loudly proclaiming themselves and i am overwhelmed. hahaha. i can't. the thoughts come - indefinite, incomplete. unsure how to manifest themselves. dancing a strange little dance. sometimes violent. sometimes they calm down for awhile and let me look at them.

take your memories and your pain and hastily paint BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH over top of them until you can only see little bits and pieces of those partially obscured memories, with smiley faces drawn all over them. Winking Emoticon, *nudge* *nudge*, you guys. boy howdy, will you look at that. i don't want it to be this way, but it is undeniably this way. here you are a part of this world, this infinite series of little uniform patterns and grids, shuffling along, gradually erasing what was underneath and starting the same pattern anew.

and so, take all the complicated emotions you felt and try to distill them so that anyone in the world will understand. don't hope that anything will be maintained in the translation. don't even try to be true to them in the first place. no one will understand if you do. they'll squint their eyes slightly in the way they do and cock their head, perplexed. they must be feverishly following those shuffling patterns, hanging on for dear life. "huh? wtf am i reading?" wtf is this bullshit?

you're just crazy. 

tell me you're crazy, maybe then i'll understand. you say this to everyone around you, silently. they don't hear it, even if you say it.

but that's because it's all been taken over, isn't it? it's all been colonized. colonized memories. digital support groups sponsored by Pepsi and Mountain Dew and Doritos. evil entities that cannot help themselves. digital lions. big square machines on a strict schedule of complicated circuitous routes that take in and poop out at an alarmingly fast and strange rate. their patterns appear so erratic and convoluted to look like they cannot possibly be maintained, yet they somehow are for the time being. and no one notices, or wants to notice. snack like you can never snack again, because it's no more, that space is no more. it's just a memory, that's all.

and then, proud statements i make come back to me. i see myself as silly little thing. a silly, sad little thing. it's all a lie. what a joke. but maybe there's also something there. maybe they can't see. maybe they never will. you tear up slightly thinking about it. maybe that's all there is.

it's time for you to do something, but what? tell the world? what? what do you have to say? what will it mean? what ways can it be aggregated and related and complicated and juxtaposed and rearranged? what conceptual frameworks can you be made to fit into? what trends are you seeking? what is your target demographic? where is all of this going? why am i reading this? why is this on my feed? who are you? why should i care about this? when will you ever stop being this way? what headaches are yet to come, ahead of you? what people are you yet to deal with in this arena? where will you be in fifty years time? where will you be in one years time?

it's all a mystery. just a mystery. not something you can even think about, or pretend to think about. you entertained a notion of it before, but that is gone. it's not for you, not your life. you strongly suspect it isn't really anyone's life either. probably not. yeah, that's a good thought. that's progress.

anyway. whatever. yep, whatever. hmm. well, whatever. 

oh well. time to erase and try again.

Monday, February 3, 2014

sound as a commodity

note: this is cross-posted from

my favorite thing about making music is exploring sound. arguably that is entirely what making music is. sound is wired deep into human consciousness. the right combination of sounds can be so utterly ecstatic and unique that experiencing it makes words seem like empty, impotent signifiers. but because of this ability to almost instantaneously stir up deep emotions, sound is really commodifiable. it didn’t take long before the dubstep “sound” to become a complete cliche in the public consciousness, but at one time it probably came off as really fresh and energizing, even revolutionary to the people who were early fans. distorted electric guitars were once kind of terrifying too, but now i can’t think of any sound that’s more establishment-friendly. listen to the first chords of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”, a progression that’s been in way more movies and commercials than i could ever have any desire to count. it’s such a ubiquitous sound, i guess because of how simple yet emphatic it is, that it can easily signify hundreds of different emotions. because of the overuse, using it now means absolutely nothing at this point other than reminding the listeners they’re listening to the opening of Baba O’Riley.

this is one of the areas where i think folk music has a vast advantage, because it has a very long-standing tradition of complex, multi-layered lyricism about life and love, generally performed very simply. there’s a sense that the lyrics in the song are getting at some vast truth not immediately apparent until you reach the ending. whereas a lot of electronic music feels like a static object that says what it says or does what it does and then leaves. it’s like candy - and that’s how a lot of people see it. a lot of people i know on rock music messageboards certainly do, anyway - and tend to like rock music (beyond it being something they grew up with) for ostensibly similar reasons as folk music - the immediacy and emphatic directness of a band’s emotions seems much looser and less easy to commodify. if there are walls imposed on the band, its members can brake them nearly instantaneously by descending into a huge cacophonous mess of sound. they are purely humans and exert their own control over the sounds that come out of their instruments.

but once any music is recorded, it becomes a “sound” - even when it’s just solo piano, or a voice and acoustic guitar. and it’s probably impossible in the current culture to not be commodified once your music reaches a certain part of popularity. whether or not M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” is a song satirizing xenophobic attitudes about immigrants, 15-year old white kids from rich US suburbs can still take it at surface value and try to look cool imitating the gunshot sounds in it when it hits no #1. that cacophonous mess from a rock band can also still be chopped up and used to signify whatever cultural ideas in advertisements and films an editor wants. nothing is safe. not to mention that these days, with audio software being so immediately accessible to anyone with a computer, it’s impossible to not be confronted with constantly thinking about the sound of the thing you’re making.

with that in mind - when making music, i tend to want to look for creating sounds similar to sounds from music i like as reference points. they’re the sounds that most immediately evoke stuff in me. the plinky, arpeggiating synths in the opening of The Knife’s “Silent Shout” or “Forest Families” does a lot to me with very little. or the tentative, almost comically sparse handclaps in James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream”. there’s a sense of confidence, of something much deeper filling in the spaces of those very simple sounds. i would say that it also makes them less commodifiable but that’s not really true, as weird new sounds generally have a way of becoming cliches quickly once they become popular.

anyway, i start this process of coming up with a sound, but then i get sucked into the wormhole of worrying about whether the sound i’m doing is interesting enough, and if it really signifies what i might think it does. i end up spending so long worrying about whether i’m saying something or not with the sound that i lose track of the central idea and get so frustrated i give up in the early phases. the sound has to be “perfect” to me or i can’t continue.

the thing is, no sound is ever perfect. no piece of music is ever perfect. and i know this. it’s not about me or my identity as a good or interesting artist, it’s about making a piece of music that evokes emotions in me. i know this too. but it’s still been my biggest struggle - struggling with feeling like i’m doing something interesting enough sound-wise while also worrying about whether what i’m expressing is the deepest, best expression of me, instead of just trying to get something down. i’m able to avoid this making the visual art i’ve been doing lately because i have no preconceived notions of talent or skill, but with music i have all kinds of baggage.

ultimately my goal is creating a piece of music that explores unique sounds but uses them as an extension of the emotions the music is intended to express, like folk music. i want to feel like the sounds are all there for a reason, not just meaningless pretty dressing slathered over everything - and that they’re getting at something deeper, something massive by using whatever means. and that’s very hard, and it’s been extremely easy to psych myself out. not talking about this with people has also been tremendously hard for me, as it has for me to find anyone to talk to this about who’ll get what i’m saying. i don’t think there’s a lot of conscious critical thought about sound, even among people who are working musicians. i don’t think a lot of people want to think too much about it, even. people want to think music is something intangible and magical, not a bunch of math. but it’s always both!

exploring interesting new sound is so completely important to me that i feel like i easily lose sight of the real important thing, which is just making something that is an expression of my emotions. and that’s, in the end, the thing that i respond to most in the artists i like - and what makes me keep coming back to their music. they endure even when their sound becomes a commodity. so i think that’s the most important thing for me to remember - to just try stuff out without preconceptions and hope for the best. sometimes just hoping for the best has created some of the most beautiful, enriching art made by humans. it’s hard to remember that when it’s just you sitting on your laptop and staring at a bunch of grids, though.