Wednesday, October 27, 2004

A Few Good Words

Wednesday, October 27, 2004
A Few Good Words
By Christina Waters, AlterNet.

A new book offers a provocative lens through which to reconsider words suffering from deft right wing manipulation.

"At this moment, peace, that word so glibly appropriated by all sides, feels soiled, tired, and beaten-up."

So says artist Sushma Joshi, summing up the reaction of many Americans battered by escalating political rhetoric. "Security," writes journalist Mary Louise Pratt, "is one of those words, like 'celibacy' or 'short' that invokes its opposite. As soon as you mention security, you suggest there's a danger, or a potential danger. Otherwise the subject wouldn't be coming up. So talking about security is one of the most effective ways to cause fear."

More and more words have acquired strange, new inflections. "Imagine you are a U.S. state governor or corporate CEO who wants to slash spending, fire employees, close branches or plants, and avoid pension obligations. How can you put it across; how can you minimize the 'turbulence'; how can you sugarcoat this bitter pill?" asks political scientist James Scott. "It will help if you call it 'streamlining.'"

Consider the phrase "shock and awe," a recent military appropriation of terms describing altered states of consciousness. "Twist and Shout." "Shuck and Jive." Even the rhythm of the phrase plays with emotionally charged memories and associations. "Shoot to Kill." Just in time for the upcoming election, a new book, "Shock and Awe: War on Words" reappropriates that phrase – and many more, providing a bracing antidote to prevailing polit-speak. The first publication from the über-alternative New Pacific Press, "Shock and Awe" is the brainchild of University of California, Santa Cruz's Institute for Advanced Feminist Research. Inquiring minds numbed by the voodoo of media propaganda will find refreshment in this slender text, composed of essays, photographs and poems. As history is busily rewritten by battalions of script-writers and strategists, the contributors to "Shock and Awe" are passionate about reclaiming a few good words.

The motivation for this compilation of "the political trajectory of words" sprang from a seminar on Feminisms and Global War. "It was a call to take back language that had been so debased in the aftermath of 9/11," explains IAFR Director Helene Moglen. Moglen, who also holds a Presidential Chair in Literature at UCSC, was amazed at the vigorous response from over 75 contributors. While acknowledging the leftist perspective of "Shock and Awe," Moglen insists that "the meanings of words are dependent on who has the power, and the right definitely has had the power lately." Co-editor Jennifer Gonzalez, a visual historian at UCSC, recalls the book's inception. "We had something of the Orwellian concern that our mass media and even political discourse was becoming an intolerable form of "newspeak."

For Moglen et al., the elasticity of language has become shaped and frozen by those in control – hence the "war on words" of the book's subtitle. Organized as meditations upon single words or phrases, the book offers a diversity of styles. Some, like the illumination of "the Disappeared" by Angela Davis, lace taut historical lessons with controlled anger. Others – the opening poem by L.R. Berger, for example – resonate with equal helpings of humor and defiance. Co-editor Anna Tsing helpfully includes the passage from "Alice in Wonderland" which has immortalized the very issue of words and their ownership. "When I use a word," says the reigning Humpty Dumpty, "it means just what I choose it to mean." To wit, George W. Bush's use of the expression, "evil-doer."

The political right, through such wordcraft as "partial birth abortion," managed not only to spin the political platter their way, but in the process generated slogans with the sort of instant sex appeal adored by the media. Soon the airways were clogged with journalists repeating these sound bites and unwittingly reinforcing the perspective of the dominant political party. UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff is another academic exercised by the implicit agenda embedded in public discourse. The linguistic "frame," as Lakoff calls a given metaphor of choice, gives potent spin to the conversation. Yet most people rarely look past the debate in question to notice that the delivery system, in this case the rhetoric, is what actually twists, skews, and spins the point in a particular direction. If words are the arrow, then the linguistic metaphor – the frame – is the bow. Gonzalez agrees that viewed in stride with Lakoff's work, "Shock and Awe" might be thought of "as a new framing device which serves to reclaim meanings for words that had been usurped by the mass media and the Bush administration."

At best, repeating the linguistic context of the party in power perpetuates a lopsided perspective and at worst, it succeeds in complete, if invisible, distortion of the issues. Psycho-linguistic metaphors give underlying shape to the landscape they describe. But all rhetoric is designed to shape and control from a chosen agenda/position. So what is "Shock and Awe"'s agenda?

As a collection of meditations, "Shock and Awe" performs its own deft retelling, reclaiming and revisiting of pithy words, by resetting the metaphorical thermostat. The claim is not that the words have been restored to something like a "true meaning," but that each passage offers a "corrective" lens through which to look. Providing "alternative genealogies" of words, the contributors invite us to become reacquainted with some old friends, former linguistic allies which have become battered out of shape by ill (make that "Republican") usage. Words like "airport" and "security" have been co-opted by ideologists with hidden, often imperialistic, agendas – whereas the contributors are ostensibly more forthright in copping to their own attitudes.

Make no mistake, the left can spin with the best of 'em. Kerry notes that Bush is "sending our kids to war," and the listener pictures a group of bloody children carrying AK-47s. Clinton contends, "I did not have sex with that woman," and suddenly we are asked to accept a definition of "sex" that flies in the face of common sense. Nonetheless, Moglen agrees, the more illegitimate the government, the more defensive its rhetoric. Hence the euphemistic urge to create such Hallmark moments as "collateral damage." Or the warm and fuzzy, "friendly fire" in place of "accidental killing of soldiers by their own comrades." Think of those linguistic spin maestros, the Mafia. From this underground culture pundits extract such useful terms as "hit" (rather than murder) and "contract" (again a murder, but one set within the frame of a legal obligation). And consider the fictional Corleone spin on "family." At what point does euphemism start to decay and erode into out-and-out deceit?

"Shock and Awe" succeeds in considering words that have been held hostage by what the editors consider to be abusive agendas. There is occasional nostalgia for past usage as well as rage over linguistic rape. Moglen's own contribution to the book riffs on the word "family," and in it she notes the curiously "melancholic urge" on the part of both the feminist left and the "Moral Majority" right to return to the idealized nuclear family of the past – even long after such a family unit has dissolved in the cauldrons of civil rights, personal choice, gay liberation, as well as the darker realities of poverty, drug abuse, job loss and terrorism. "It has always been the role of the family to create this deep sense of longing for something that never existed," Moglen believes. Like a June Cleaver mom in starched shirtwaist dresses and pearls.

Through creative reframing and intellectual black ops, "Shock and Awe: War on Words" hopes to liberate value-charged words and restore them to their original power. The point, says Gonzalez, is "to change the terms of the discussion so that other positions might be possible." Whether or not such a retrospective agenda overcomes the odds, it certainly provides that most potent political tool of all – thoughtful examination.

Christina Waters, Ph.D., is a lecturer in philosophy at UCSC and writes about social issues, food, wine, art and the environment for the alternative press.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Sexual Sites, Seminal Atttitudes: Sexualities, Masculinities and Culture in South Asia

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

"'Cheli-Beti' Discourses of Trafficking and Constructions of Gender, Citizenship and Nation in Modern Nepal" appears in the anthology Sexual Sites, Seminal Atttitudes: Sexualities, Masculinities and Culture in South Asia

Editor: Sanjaya Srivastava
Publisher: Sage Publications Pvt. Ltd
Pub Date: 02/2004
Pages: 360
The book was put together from papers presented at a conference of the same name in Deakins University, Australia in 1998.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Shock and Awe: The War on Words

Bregje van Eekelen
Jennifer González
Bettina Stötzer
Anna Tsing

If you don’t know what to say about global war, you need a dictionary. Shock and Awe: War on Words (New Pacific Press: Fall 2004) is just that: a keywords book that participates in a battle over the imagination, acknowledging the force of words, concepts, and images in framing our everyday lives. Located in the borderlands between scholarship and public culture, it re-appropriates our vocabularies by exploring the political trajectories of world-making words, projects, and images.

You hear yourself use the word terrorism, and uncannily find yourself participating in its life, its proliferation, its reality. Willy-nilly you’ve become a participant in a world-making project of anxiety and antagonism. While it is impossible to completely give up on terms like peace, family, and security, to use them is to become a stranger in one’s own world. Yet how can we envision an alternative if our very imagination, the very definition of “the social” and the shape of “the political” are under attack?

Rather than being merely shocked and awed, a group of more than seventy scholars, artists and public intellectuals put their writings on the line. They present fragile genealogies, situated vocabularies, visual provocations and poetry. Tearing apart powerful representations or reclaiming them from being instruments of discipline, exclusion and imperialism, these short interventions populate, recapture, and enliven our sense of the political.

The project concludes that there is hope for the most overused words, and life for the most neutral-sounding concepts, such as:

America (as imagined from elsewhere), anti-terror legislation, barbarian, chicken, civilization, consumer, democracy, economic recovery, exit, family of patriots, fear, fences, homeland, iRaq, Islamic Feminism, lip, military-industrial complex, nomads, patriot, peace, pirate, race, security, speech, streamline, them, time, us, we, words.

Politics is, of course, not only about getting out to vote, but also about seizing the means of imagination. Please help us spread word of these alternative genealogies, fragments of everyday life, glimpses of social histories, and stories of mistranslation and encounter. You can order the book at The Literary Guillotine, 204 Locust Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831 457-1195; through Abebooks; or by downloading an order form from the Institute for Advanced Feminist Research (IAFR).

194 pages 7" x 4.5" US $10

From the first article:

Do words sometimes betray you, leaving you a stranger in your own land?
Words can be brutal, frustrating, and exhausting. Consider terrorism, civilization, and even peace, family, and security. Words can also be bridges to new forms of experience and openings for alliance. This book explores the political trajectories of words through pictures, excerpts, stories and exegesis about the politics of the present global situation. Scholars, artists, activists and poets have joined forces to offer alternative etymologies, genealogies, fragments of everyday life, and glimpses of social history as a form of defense and defiance in an escalating war on words.

"Feminisms and Global War Project, Institute for Advanced Feminist Research."
More details
Shock and Awe: War on Words
By Bregje van Eekelen, University of California, Santa Cruz Institute for Advanced Feminist Research, Santa Cruz University of California, Institute for Advanced Feminist Research
Published by North Atlantic Books, 2004
ISBN 0971254605, 9780971254602
185 pages

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Waiting for the War to End

I see the black smoke of bodies
charred and burning up my dreams, the red tears
of my dismembered country –
Nepal, you used to be a canvas, green and radiant,
now painted darkly with the brush of human despair
and the sticky patina of blood, hope
disemboweled by rusty khukuris and AK-47s
and old helicopters given for free by friendly countries
wanting only security, but do they see –
do they see the dead bodies? We have
become a nation where the mountains and the fields
and especially the rivers are flooded, flooded, flooded –
over and over with the sacrifice of human corpses -
and once again the soul is at large, like modernity
torn forever, mixed with too much hate and ideology
once again we come back to this time and place
back to this impasse, back to this place of power
where the struggle is less for the future than it is
for the bloody now, so here we are, all of us,
here and now and breathing still, waiting for the war to end

The End of the World

The End of the World received a hyperfiction prize from East of the Web.

It has been republished in The Cold River Review (winter, 2006)

It has been used by English as a Second Language sites:

And its been translated in the Vietnamese by Sai Gon Tiep Thi Online.
Read "Ngày tận thế":

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Sushma Joshi's "Blue" Nepal at Gallery 9

Read News on Kantipur Online

Sushma Joshi's "Blue" Nepal at Gallery 9

Post Report

KATHMANDU, May 26 - The poignant hues of deep blue in her paintings serve to embody the agonies of the present "Blue Period" in Nepal. A period that artist Sushma Joshi, also a Brown University graduate and a former art model, describes as a state of political stagnation and instability that has reaped nothing but torments and sufferings for the people of this once peaceful country.
"It is high time that we had had a change for the good," she adds. "My paintings are just the reflections of the urgent need for creative and spiritual transformations on both personal and national levels."

The paintings, which are on display at an ongoing exhibition entitled "Transformations" at Gallery 9, also prove the artistic and intellectual talents of the artist in Sushma Joshi. She has used highly symbolic icons and myriad of feminine images to expressively represent the suffering of the people. With attention to the slightest details, even the direction of paint flow on the canvas has been carefully coordinated to create that perfect picture. The emphasis on facial features such as the eyes and nose, and the omnipresent cross on most of her works also, add an individual signature to the paintings.

"Learning to draw a cross by not using straight lines was a challenge. It took me three days before I could draw a cross that did not have perfectly straight lines," recalls Sushma.

Popping out from the otherwise almost entirely blue series of paintings are three small works that are dominated by red color. Named Past, Present and Future, each of these distinctive paintings, as their names suggest, represents the states of Nepal at different times.

"I’ve depicted the past and present of Nepal as being violent and bloody," explains Sushma. "And as for the future, it is uncertain and amorphous as are the papers that have been pasted on the painting."Sushma has also used real rice grains in the painting entitled "Present" to, in her own words, appreciate the significance of this cereal to Nepalis.

Sharing the secrets to creating such unique artworks, Sushma reveals, "Learning to see realistically is only the first step. After that, you take off and try to see all the unseen dimensions." She further adds, "Art is more than aesthetics or creating just beautiful pictures. It is an experiment using different media and genres to see and show the phenomena not visible to the naked eyes."

The exhibition continues up to the end of May.
(Art exhibition archived at:

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Talk at Flushing Library: "The People's War in Nepal"

Mar 21, 2004 - CONFLICT in nepal

"The People's War in Nepal," with speaker Sushma Joshi, 2 pm, Flushing Library, Queens, NY. The library is located at 41-17 Main St. Free.