So I've been meaning to write this post since earlier this summer when this video was first making rounds on the interwebs, but the crazy turnover of the Blogger's Timeline combined with my inherent laziness meant that the moment passed. 99's smart, sensitive post about the effects of reading this terrifying official military comic addressing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy makes me think that maybe we shouldn't just let these boogieing soldiers fade into the ether of whatever happens to people after their 15 minutes of internet fame.
Here's the thing. I love this video. Love, love, love it. I love the discomfort I feel at the physical intimacy between the two soldiers at the very beginning, and how much it feels at first like it might veer into this territory at any moment. Ultimately, though, I think the video goes somewhere even more interesting than hot man-on-man action. Instead. we see a group of men whom we're often encouraged to think of only in terms of their relationship to violence demonstrating the intimacy and trust that are embodied in the lifts between the two soldiers, and we can watch them enjoy the basic joy in movement inspired by a great pop song. Even a film as brilliant as Hurt Locker encourages us to think of soldiers as only violent--we mourn for Jeremy Renner's character because he seems capable of surviving solely when surrounded by extreme violence. These Gaga-dancing soldiers show us the possibility for a different kind of narrative.
But then, after I posted the video on Facebook, a friend offered a link to this post, titled "Welcome to Hate 101," which linked the LOLs that greeted the video with transphobic hate crimes and institutionalized homophobia.
(More soldiers and justified paranoia, as well as some love for Eve Sedgwick after the break)
My academic heroine, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, has a lot to say about the relationship between paranoid and what she calls "reparative" reading (you can RTWT of an earlier version of those ideas in her introduction to the collection Novel Gazing), but it basically comes down to this. Academic discourse (and, I would add, lefty political discourse more generally), has become inexorably focused on rooting out the ways that dominant power structures (capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc) shape our experience, particularly in the realms of art and literature. Criticism thus becomes like this scavenger hunt for evidence of the systematic reproduction of power. No matter how paranoid you are, you're not paranoid enough.
To her credit, Sedgwick never says that paranoid readings are wrong. As that terrifying comic makes quite clear, there's no way that the soldiers in the Telephone video could ever follow through on the queer subtext I pick up on and remain soldiers. The structure of DADT absolutely reinforces the structural connection between homosexuality and shame: if you're a soldier experiencing same-sex desire, you'd fucking better be paranoid, since you can't even talk to a mental health provider with the promise of confidentiality. And I doubt I'm the only one who found the narrative discouraging harassment the least convincing part of the comic. They've since disabled the comments on the original YouTube video, but there are enough scoffing references to DADT elsewhere that it's clear how the humor of the dance routine stems at least in part from the soldiers' queer minstrelsy--they can put on crazy outfits and dance a little faggy because we know they're not.
Sedgwick's genius, though, is that she refuses to stop at the paranoid position. So, we're right that the military-industrial complex reinforces damaging ideas and practices about gender and sexuality. Is this really news? Sort of. I mean, we know the military's not gay-friendly, but sometimes (as 99 pointed out) we don't quite get the depth of institutionalized oppression, and we need to be a little paranoid in order to see the truth. But at the same time (as our sometimes difficult discussions about race, gender, and representation around here suggest), seeing the same truth reproduced again and again can be profoundly demoralizing, even when you're not on the losing end of the stick. Racism and sexism and class warfare and fatphobia and imperialism and all the rest just come to feel like how the world works--unchangeable and eternal facts. More and more, we look for evidence to reinforce the thing we already know to be true, and we start to occupy a closed system. The good news in the paranoid position, it seems, is that we won't be unpleasantly surprised--we already know full well how unpleasant everything is and always will be.
So what if we take that position of despair as a starting point rather than a finish line? Sedgwick builds her argument on the work of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who argues that people move between paranoid and depressive positions as they try to figure out their relationship with the world. Basically (and this is in some REALLY broad strokes), you enter the depressive position when you despair at the knowledge gained from a paranoid perspective. But, according to Sedgwick, "this is the position from which it is possible in turn to use one's own resources to assemble or 'repair' the murderous part-objects into something like a whole--though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole." (128) When we accept that the world is broken, we can start looking for ways to put it back together into something new, knowing that we can't possibly see from here what that new thing might be.
And that's where I come back to the relationship between the video and the comic. DADT offers an immediate and easy way to write off the genderbending elements of these soldiers' dance party, and Sedgwick herself famously argued that homosocial spaces like the military make the closet as we now know it possible. But I'm blown away by the way these guys figured out a place for whimsy in the middle of a battle zone. If this costume can happen in the middle of a seemingly endless war, what other possibilities have I not yet imagined? Lots, I hope.