BODIES: BROKEN, MISSING…

It is hard to come up this week with an idea which does not connect one way or another with the crash of GermanWings flight 4U9525, apparently caused by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. It all points to a textbook situation: a frustrated individual who cannot achieve a goal in life (becoming a Lufthansa captain, it seems) commits suicide claiming in the process the lives of other persons, who simply had the bad luck of standing in the way of an unstoppable death wish.

I do not intend to analyze this person and his motivations: I’ll simply note that, for me, the most baffling aspect is how and why his suicidal cravings overcame the necessary empathy which a person responsible for the lives of 149 human beings, many of them children, is supposed to feel in similar circumstances. I am familiar with the processes of dehumanization to which the victims of monstrous abusers are subjected, from pimps exploiting prostitutes to the Nazi personnel running the death camps. What is particularly bewildering in the case is the lack of utter motivation or benefit. In comparison, the 9/11 murderers seem much easier to explain as deeply damaged human beings.

The bodies. For quite a number of years I have been a member of the research group ‘Body and Textuality,’ and I’ll try to process my think here using the Cultural Studies tools I learned with them. I wrote for one of our collective volumes a very grim article, explaining how the techno-warfare unleashed on the frail human body during WWI, when so many disappeared, was a sort of general dress rehearsal for the Nazi final solution. This applied to the systematic extermination of the Jewish all kinds of technology designed to make bodies disappear, so successfully that many denied the Holocaust ever happened. Then the Americans dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese that reduced many of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to mere shadows on the wall. Between 1914 and 1945, in short, we learned the sad craft of viciously breaking bodies and disappearing persons as it had never happened before in human History.

I had to think about these matters recently as a) I have written an article criticizing J.K. Rowling for cruelly disappearing Sirius Black, most readers’ favourite character and, b) because I visited last Saturday Federico García Lorca’s museum in Fuente Vaqueros (Granada). I have actually come to the conclusion that the many dead of the Spanish Civil War whose bodies are still missing have probably taken a subconscious hold on all of us in Spain, which is, most likely, why I could not stomach Sirius’ death (he is also, let’s recall, a political prisoner wrongfully condemned to a life sentence at Azkaban for crimes he did not commit). The friends who took me to see Lorca’s house explained to me that his family’s tepid attitude towards the efforts made to find his body (he was executed for no reason at all, except that he was gay and a progressive man, by Franco supporters) can only be explained by his having been buried elsewhere, in a secret location only his closest relatives know. This would make sense, but, still, the appalling fact that he and many others are missing after so many years makes my heart flinch. In Alfredo Sanzol’s marvellous play, En la Luna (2011), a couple searching for another missing victim despair of ever giving him a proper burial. It’s the early 1990s and the optimistic man tells the depressed woman that there is no way the Olympic Games will be celebrated in Barcelona with all the dead still buried anonymously in dirty ditches by village roads. My hair stood on end… for this is where so many still are.

Reading about WWI, the Nazi death camps, Sirius Black, García Lorca… you learn that you can only properly overcome the terrible process of mourning if you celebrate funeral rites. 9/11 is fresh in our memories as a tragic event whose grief can never be truly conquered since many of the bodies simply vanished swallowed by the extreme violence of the events. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a poignant novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), narrating how nine-year-old Oskar tries to make sense of his father’s disappearance on that day. The 9/11 missing crop up again and again in fiction, ghostly presences signalling our perplexity before the onslaught of ferocious death.

Sinister planes connect those 3,000 deaths with the 150 this week (and with the other plane, lost in the Indian Ocean one year ago, possibly in the same circumstances). We learned with 9/11 that the images of the broken bodies should not be shown, as a sign of respect for the dead. Tabloids used to show them; I still shudder at what I saw on the pages of Interview after Los Rodeos’ crash, as a too curious 10-year-old. We also learned with 9/11 that DNA positive identification is crucial to allow relatives and friends to close their process of mourning if only on the basis of minimal human remains. This very intense week, we have seen again and again on TV the families travelling to the Alps village close to the site of the tragedy, mourning around a memorial stone their dead ones–as we all hope in Spain that DNA processing will not result in the disaster that it was in the case of the military personnel lost in the accident of the fated Yak 42 flight in 2003. All this coming in the week after the local Madrid authorities gleefully announced that the mortal remains of writer Miguel de Cervantes had been disturbed from their place of eternal rest and will soon be the object of morbid curiosity for any fee-paying tourist.

Ironically, trying not to think of the broken bodies and the broken families, and of the bad luck that trapped the poor people destroyed by a frustrated person’s moment of fury, I decided to watch the most trivial of movies: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last action flick, Sabotage. Now, this is a man whose whole acting career (yes, I know this is an oxymoron) has been based on the display of his muscular body, still in possession of spectacular biceps at 67. Action films thrive, precisely, on celebration of what Yvonne Tasker once called ‘musculinity’ and I just wanted some pop-corn movie in that style. No such luck… Sabotage was, rather, a celebration of the broken body; each of Arnie’s badass team died in terrifying ways, closer to the kind of body horror I have learned to avoid than to your typical action film. The first man to be dispatched is mowed down in his Winnebago by a freight train. When Arnie gets to the site, a local police officer asks him to stick little flags to the dead man’s scattered remains… shown in all gruesome detail.

I think we, human beings, are a mad civilization. We take pains to avoid certain images from reaching us on the screen, on any screen. And, then, as you can see, we generate fake images of what we do not want to see, for enjoyment. All the many series about forensic specialists, the pleasure in zombies, all the graphic, gory detail of the fictional representation of the broken body is telling something quite ugly about who we are. This spectre first reared its head, as I say, during WWI, when the impossibility of bringing home whole bodies led to the gigantic cemeteries in France and all the war memorials. Since then, we have been growing something rotten in our souls, a psychopathic yearning to break human bodies in the worst possible ways–precisely the sick craving that filled the lost soul who destroyed so many human lives a few days ago. May they all rest in peace. May we all learn to prevent horrors like this one.

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ALTMETRICS AND THE MAJOR OF JUN: QUESTIONING (MY) EXISTENCE…

There are days when I think that I live in a kind of time warp, causing me to catch up with crucial matters for research with unavoidable delay. Thus, I have only learned about ‘altmetrics’ last week, via an email I received from their organization, when this seems to have materialized five years ago. What is ‘altmetrics’? Citing from their own web, http://altmetrics.org/about/, ‘altmetrics’ is “the creation and study of new metrics based on the Social Web for analyzing, and informing scholarship.” Oh dear…

If you read the “Altmetrics Manifesto” (http://altmetrics.org/manifesto/) of 2010, you’ll learn that the ‘alt’ in ‘altmetrics’ stands for ‘alternative.’ The manifesto explains that, as we all know in academia, peer reviewing, citation counting measures and instruments like JCR (Journal Citations Report), are failing to fulfil their purpose of helping to transmit sound knowledge and measuring its impact accurately. Peer reviewing is excruciatingly slow (it seems that also in science) and citations impact is open to manipulation.

Dr. Roger A. Brumback narrates in his article “Impact Factor Wars: Episode V–The Empire Strikes Back” (Journal of Child Neurology, 2009, http://jcn.sagepub.com/content/24/3/260.long) an interesting case. Two “clever scientists,” Harm K. Schutte and Jan G. Svec, members of the International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (IALP) published an editorial in Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica (2007) citing “all 66 articles published in that journal” in the two previous years. Self-citation, Brumback explains, more than doubled the journal’s impact factor and helped the journal climb “9 places in the subject category of ‘Rehabilitation’ (which only contains27 journals).” I love it, by the way, that Brumback validates the impact of popular fictions (and its research) by basing his argumentation on Star Wars. Thomson Reuters plays the part of Darth Vader, we are all rebels against the Empire. I always knew Princess Leia is my girl!

The matters of altmetrics also includes what they call peer-review crowd sourcing: “Instead of waiting months for two opinions, an article’s impact might be assessed by thousands of conversations and bookmarks in a week.” There was indeed something called CrowdoMeter for a while (http://blogs.plos.org/mfenner/2011/12/20/crowdometer-or-trying-to-understand-tweets-about-journal-papers/) based on the idea that measuring tweets about journal papers gives a reliable indication of their impact. I have serious doubts that Twitter is the place to react to academic papers and there is, besides, always the risk that, as the manifesto acknowledges, altmetrics might reflect “just empty buzz.”

I understand, then, that so far this is a closed avenue and that the strategies to measure impact are still going in the current official direction. As an example, see the announcement I have just received today for the “Quartes Jornades sobre Gestió de la Informació Científica (JGIC-2015)” (http://blogs.iec.cat/observatori/jgic/jgic-2015/). The programme includes plenty on bibliometrics and institutional information systems but nothing directly on social networks, which is, well, odd, CrowdoMeter or not.

As a researcher, as I have been complaining here, I feel overwhelmed by the need to prove not so much my impact but my very existence. Although I have published plenty, not all databases acknowledge that I am alive and working as nobody, except myself, is providing information about what I do. And the task is never-ending. Recently, my university informed me, to my horror and consternation, that I don’t belong to any research group–I had not entered the corresponding information in our user-unfriendly computer application. Deep sigh because, as happens, I do spend much time keeping that updated. Also, as I have been narrating here, I’m using Academia.edu, my web, this blog and a Twitter account to publicise my work. I think it is working, more or less, but I feel daunted by the task of being my own community manager, as I don’t have the training. There are days, then, when I seriously doubt I can carry on the task of proving that I exist. The task of proving that I matter, if I do at all, is just too much…

This weekend I have met someone who has indeed no doubts that he exists and that what he does matters: José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, the Mayor of Jun. This is a town of about 3,500 souls next to the city of Granada, which is now famous for its Mayor’s indefatigable work in pursuit of visibility in the social networks. The Mayor’s project is to turn Jun into not just a smart town but one of the smartest on Earth, by making it as forward-thinking as possible in terms of current trends in communications and networking. His very popular Twitter account (@JoseantonioJun) has indeed placed Jun on the world map and you can even see a little blue bird on the façade of the Town Hall. When he announced that Jun would welcome any gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry, this caused an Australian minister to stage his wedding there… Just yesterday, he broadcast live on Twitter the counting of the votes for the Andalusian elections in Jun, a pioneering initiative for the sake of transparent democracy. So here is someone who fully understands social media (and a politician who knows what he’s doing). I just don’t have his energy…

The impact of computers in our lives is so immense that even though I spent my first years as a university teacher with no internet I cannot remember how on Earth I managed to work then. Internet must have been introduced in my university in 1995-6, for while in Scotland in 1994-5 I didn’t have an email account. I had been using pre-internet BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) for forums and chats pre-online since 1993, but the internet came later. The funny thing is that although I acknowledge the need to adapt to the new times and I try to catch up as best as I can, at heart altmetrics irritates me as much as bibliometrics and the attached citation systems. One thing is counting the downloads of my papers on Academia.edu or the digital repository of my university for my own reference; quite another matter reducing me to these figures, to the number of my followers on Twitter and to that of my blog readers. I never check that myself, as I don’t want to know. I don’t want to be, as I say, reducible to a set of figures and much less for what I do precisely to open up academic work to general readers beyond the official ways of measuring me up. Just let me be…

So my conclusion is a very existential one: I exist a little, and I matter (hopefully) a little. And I don’t want anyone to give the exact quantities of that ‘little’ something. I know full well, thank you very much, that other individuals matter much more. Yet, I think of the many millions whose lives will pass unnoticed by the social networks and whose lives will leave no trace and I conclude that, in the end, Twitter or not, altmetrics or bibliometrics, this is our most common destiny.

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SCHOLARSHIP, CRITICISM, REVIEWING: FINE DISTINCTIONS, DIFFERENT JOBS

Today I’m quoting from an essay by Gary K. Wolfe, “Pilgrims of the Fall: Critics and Criticism” from his highly stimulating volume Evaporating Genres (2001, p. 205) He discusses the differences between ‘reviewer,’ ‘critic,’ ‘scholar’ and ‘academic,’ explaining that for “ a great many practicing writers” reviewer and critic mean the same, that is to say, the persons assessing their work in periodical publications for a general readership. Yet, in academia, he adds, “the distinction can be crucial” for we call ourselves ‘critics’ but we are not reviewers “working under ‘journalistic’ constraints.” We may do review work for academic publications but it usually involves academic texts and not literature.

Criticism, Wolfe adds, remains, however, within academia a “much vaguer term” than ‘scholarship,’ meaning “the uncovering of new or newly combined knowledge by means of formally described and peer-reviewed processes” with a view to obtaining a “degree, a job, or promotion and tenure” (p. 206). Wolfe then proceeds to praise the work within SF and fantasy of John Clute, known for his indefatigable task as a reviewer and encyclopaedia writer outside the circuit of academia, though actually straddling this and fandom (he’s, em, an independent scholar). Wolfe also proceeds to chastise scholars and academics for using too little time to read literature and too much energy to read theory; we are also guilty of patronising the reviewers who, like Clute, may lack a theoretical framework, as once Rob Latham famously complained, but who do much to map a particular genre on a regular basis and thus, I would add, pave the way for scholarship.

The key problem worrying Wolfe is how to tie “literary criticism directly to the actual world of readers” (p. 213) which chimes in directly with the complaint by the only Amazon.es reviewer of Historia y antología de la ciencia ficción española, edited by Julián Díez and Fernando Ángel Moreno (Cátedra, 2014). This lonely voice complains that although the anthology is “impeccable” the study is a bit marred for being “too elitist, neglecting the task of fandom within the genre.” Indeed. Certainly, SF and fantasy, secondarily horror, detective fiction and romance, are very different fields from literary and mainstream narrative (middlebrow?), and other genres like poetry, since the emergence of scholarship is posterior to the emergence of fandom. As Wolfe explains this created a strange situation for academics within SF and fantasy who had to adapt to a pre-existent vocabulary or risk excluding themselves completely from communication with the readers in this genre.

Yet, this is not where I was going (if I’m going anywhere today!). The internet, forums like Amazon and Good Reads, give us the chance, as I have already noted here, to contrast the opinions of academic critics and scholars with the opinions of common readers, to which, of course, we need to add those of professional reviewers. Although academic work must include a certain measure of reviewing in the case of works relatively unknown, few academics ever work on a text untouched by reviewers, whether professional or amateur.

I might even say that a complete lack of professional reviews for certain contemporary texts bothers me far less than a lack of reviews by common readers, a void which seems to me a clearer indication of the indifferent quality of a particular text. Whenever I start a paper on a contemporary novel, I read the reviews first, with appreciation, and try to quote them. Although it might seem that expressing an opinion is easy enough, I find reviewing a very difficult art, as a reviewer must be knowledgeable without being pedantic, and communicative without being arrogant and, above all, s/he must be fair.

Proving his point that an academic critic/scholar must also be a well-informed reader, Wolfe uses in his volume an encyclopaedic approach–the one I also miss in theory-oriented scholarly work. He inserts mini-reviews of a few lines as he theorizes, using an almost jargon-free, elegant prose which keeps you reading as if his academic book were a novel. This, let me stress, is bold and surprising for, as he complains (and I complain), if you want to publish within the habitual academic circuits you need to accept restrictive style rules. When I let myself go a little bit in my own academic work, I kick myself hard: girl, this is academic work, not a blog post! Yet I know that I’m possibly doing my most significant scholarly work here, writing informally in my blog, if by scholarly we understand as Wolfe does, the dissemination of knowledge.

Wolfe recalls interviewing a candidate for a college teaching position who declared that she had no time to read fiction as she had to read so much theory; he adds that this is what this woman thought she needed to say, though it might not be true at all. In my own case, I seem to have developed a strange sort of guilt about reading fiction. It seems that academics do not work unless they’re using a computer so, somehow, I started pushing my reading to the evenings and weekends. Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 16:30, except for the time I spend in class, I sit at my table trying to produce something publishable, preparing classes, answering emails, etc, etc. I haven’t spent a weekday reading for a long, long time and now that I have the chance, as I need not teach this semester, I feel, well, guilty of enjoying a very strange kind of privilege. The sense of guilt increases if I do my reading in glorious sunshine, on my terrace… but decreases a little if I read theory, pen and paper at hand. Spending my day reading a novel is not really working, is it?? I know it is, but this guilt must be a remnant of the time when reading was what I did for a hobby after school was over…

So, funnily, reading theory feels like more real work than reading fiction even though the criticism of fiction is, in the end, my main aim. Or is it? Wolfe says it’s the other way round: theorizing is the real aim of contemporary scholarly work, and the fiction is there just to pepper the theory. Could it be, I’m wondering, a kind of puritanical attitude against the idea of reading fiction? Is this also why we, academics, do not review fiction (unless it is properly literary and in the proper newspapers)? Waste of time, read serious work…

Although I am a doctor in English Philology, I don’t call myself a philologist. To be honest, I don’t call myself much of anything, as I find that, generally speaking, we refer to our task by speciality (‘I do Masculinities Studies’, for instance) rather than by name (‘I’m a scholar’). When I try to define what I do to myself, I prefer the label ‘cultural critic’, though perhaps ‘academic cultural critic’ comes closest. I use ‘cultural’ because I work with a variety of texts, literary and audio-visual. When I think of ‘scholars’ I tend to envision colleagues working in archives or libraries, unearthing the secrets of the past. As I work on contemporary texts, and tend to produce knowledge by making connections rather than discoveries, I’m not sure whether I am a scholar, though it seems I am indeed an academic.

Wolf, as I have noted, claims that scholarship is produced to obtain a “degree, a job, or promotion and tenure” (p. 206). I see it the other way round: one aims at obtaining tenure in order to be able to produce scholarship (or academic criticism, whatever you want to call it). Wolfe seems a bit jaundiced here for I believe that genuine scholars are as vocational as, say, literary writers. I see many people around me producing fine academic work with little hope of achieving tenure because they feel, shall we say?, naturally inclined to do so. A strange vocation calls us to try to disseminate knowledge though in the end we may produce very obscure knowledge that only a handful ever read. No wonder there is a little of bad blood between academic and journalistic critics for, in the end, they have a higher impact, not to mention the millions of amateur reviewers crowding Amazon, GoodReads…

So, thank you, Gary Wolfe for the salutary reminder that as academic critics/scholars we need to read fiction and not only theory. Sunshine on my terrace is calling, as is this alluring novel on my table… yet it only 10:45 and there are papers to write…

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GOODBYE AND THANKS, TERRY PRATCHETT

Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, in 2007. We, author and readers, have been saying goodbye for almost 8 years, then, yet for all our readiness this is a death that catches us unawares. Couldn’t we have had more time? This is it? Sir Terry, just 66, is no longer with us and although we were lucky that he kept on writing to the very end (dictating in the last stages), it is still too little time.

His death comes, besides, not even two years after losing Iain M. Banks also too early and too unfairly. It is hard to lose them both, it feels as if very dear personal friends are gone. I think also of my doctoral student, Rosa María Moreno, currently writing her dissertation on the narrator’s voice in the Discworld series and how sad she must be feeling now. As I told her, the best possible homage is finishing the work and making sure Pratchett’s novels are preserved for posterity.

I have already written here that I started reading Pratchett 20 years ago, when my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter, gently mocked my snobbish prejudice against the colourful covers of Pratchett’s novels. I have read since then 39 novels by Pratchett and 3 other volumes he has co-authored, missing just 1 Discworld novel. Since then, I have taught novels by Pratchett twice: my favourite, The Truth (number 25 within the Discworld series) and his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

When I finished teaching last year my course on Harry Potter, I asked my students to please, please, please thank me, if they wished to do so, by reading one Pratchett, any novel, and see how it worked for them. I don’t know if I have made any new fans this way but I hardly see the way to teach a monographic course on his work, if only one based on a selection of 5 or 6 novels. My personal homage, by the way, is an article I was already preparing for a volume dealing with neo-Victorian fictions, on his novel Dodger, which I’ll praise for his clever recycling of Oliver Twist.

For me, Pratchett and Dickens are very close: as I have insisted here again and again they are writers one reads for the pleasure of their company, no matter what they narrate. Both have potent narrative voices, suggesting that the man behind the telling, the author, is, yes, a wise and witty man. As my student Rosa María is arguing, Pratchett had a unique way of satirizing the real world by transforming it into the blend of comedy and fantasy on which his Discworld lies. Also, as she claims, the satire works not by direct allusion but by winking an eye to the reader and making us feel part of the circle of initiates who is in on the joke.

The cast of Pratchett’s characters is very extensive, also very Dickensian in their way of appearing on the page very much alive from the first sentence introducing them. They’re all quirky in a way that would even disconcert Miss Havisham, yet they are all recognisable human beings, even the ones who/which are not human at all. I have, for instance, a silly soft spot for Otto von Chriek, a vampire iconographer (= photographer) who, being destroyed every time he uses flashlight for his photos, has the precaution of carrying a tiny flask of blood tied to his wrist. He collapses in cinders, the flask breaks, the blood remakes him. My other soft spot is for Corporal/Captain Carrot, a most decent man who would be simply overwhelmed if he only knew who he really is.

Pratchett has legions of fans and in the same many other popular classics have survived without the aid of academia, I am sure they will keep his memory fresh for generations to come. I would say, besides, that an ability to read Sir Terry in English should be a great enticement to learn the language; I have never read any translation into Spanish or Catalan but one thing I can say is that it is impossible that the humour translates well. Perhaps the same applies to the cultural references, I don’t know, though my guess is that Pratchett’s books are multi-layered, so that the older and more sophisticated the readers is the more meaning s/he grasp in his satirical voice. This does not mean, quite the opposite, that the novels are inaccessible to young or foreign readers, just that they possibly grasp only the more basic layers.

The MLA database only names 48 items dealing with Terry Pratchett works, of which only 1 is a book: Discworld and the Disciplines: Critical Approaches to the Terry Pratchett Works, a collective volume edited by Anne Hiebert and William C. Spruiell (McFarland, 2014). There is actually a second volume, the monograph Accused of Literature by Andrew M. Butler, which MLA ignores, perhaps for being that kind of work which straddles fandom and academia. Interestingly, the first item named by MLA appeared in 1992, a very brief essay by Liz Holliday for the Science Fiction Chronicle. This is 8 years after Pratchett started publishing his Discworld series, 21 since his first book. The new collective volume is, hopefully, a good sign that the academic world has finally caught on and realised that Pratchett is someone worth studying and not only worth reading. My own first attempt to explain Pratchett to local Spanish audiences, by the way, dates back to 2002: “Ídolos del fantástico popular: el gótico cotidiano de Stephen King y la sátira pseudo-histórica de Terry Pratchett” (see: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/other-publications).

If you’re reading this and are wondering where you should start reading Pratchett and why you should read him at all, my answer is that you can either start at the beginning, with The Colour of Magic, or just anywhere you like. I started with Guards, Guards! (1989), the 8th Discworld novel, I don’t even know why, read a few more published later and then decided to start again, back at the beginning. Why read Pratchett, then? Because he was a wordsmith, as the definition goes “a skilled user of words.” Was he, then, a literary writer? Yes, he was that rare breed: the popular literary writer, the ones who used to abound in the 19th century until Modernism decided that either you told a story or you wrote Literature. Fortunately, Sir Terry could do both.

A typical experience of reading one of her novels consists for me of reading non-stop and then braking hard in the last 50 pages, realizing that the pleasure of a new Pratchett will not be repeated for one year at least (now never again…). I admire the way Pratchett comments obliquely on the absurdity and stupidity of our world by using an even crazier parallel in the Discworld; I love how the narrator’s voice is full of barbs and yet so kind, so humane; I enjoy the variety of eccentric characters and how one gets to know little by little the varied geography and societies of the Discworld; I value Sir Terry’s defence of integration despite difference and how his humans, trolls, dwarves, zombies, vampires… find a place in the accommodating city of Ank-Morpork. I marvel at the inventiveness. He has always made it smile, and has often made me laugh, sometimes really loud. No easy feat for a writer.

Queen Elizabeth II knighted Terry Pratchett for services to literature in 2009 (he had been appointed ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’ or OBE in 1998). He declared himself “flabbergasted,” and I declare myself won over by a state capable of honouring this way not only him but also Arthur C. Clarke or Arthur Conan Doyle, even Barbara Cartland. That Pratchett ended his days ‘Sir Terry’ is one of those very nice British quirks we wonder about from abroad… very civilized.

Sir Terry, knight of the Discworld, servant of Literature: I’ll miss you very, very much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for 20 years of the most wonderful company. I’m really sorry you’re gone; your books will be here, by my side, for as long as I live. And I’ll do my best, this is a promise, to find you as many new readers as I can. Long live Sir Terry!

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INTERNATIONAL WOMAN’S DAY: A REMINDER OF OUR SUBORDINATION

Today, 8 of March, International Woman’s Day, I only feel irritation. I’m irritated because we still need a special day to complain that more than half of humankind is subordinated to men, who are actually the minority. I’m irritated because I wish we did not need days like today in 2015 and because even if I live to be 100 (2066…) there is still going to be an urgent need for an 8 of March like today. Google has decorated its opening page with a logo reminding us of women’s achievements in a variety of fields but the Spanish media are full, rather, of the miseries we women endure and I feel really downbeat.

El País explains that since the Spanish Government started counting the victims of couple-related violence, back in 2001, the list extends to more than 800 already… The son of one of them writes about the tragic void left by his mother’s absence and this is as it should be: the men must shoulder half the burden of the fight against patriarchal misogynistic terrorism, which must become a collective fight. Miguel Lorente, the man who, together with Luis Bonino, has spoken with the greatest clarity against male violence in Spain, makes the same claim and I could not agree more with him: my main hope for violence against women to end are the loving sons, brothers, fathers, partners, friends… and, above all, the fathers of daughters who will not want to see their little girls grow into abused women, whether this is in the hands of men claiming to love them or men in positions to employ them.

Many of the news items this week have to do, precisely with the gender pay gap, which in Spain is officially 17.5% in contrast to 19% for the whole European Union. This means that if a man and a woman are hired to do a job he will get higher wages by that percentage just for having a penis (it seems that a common strategy to justify this kind of illegal discrimination is giving the man’s job a title within a higher category). Catalan TV3 interviews today a few female students indignant that they have to face a worse future than their male peers although the statistics indicate not only that women are a majority in college but also that they do better. Then, the newscast moves onto a report of a political act in which President Artur Mas has promised women will have full equality in a future independent Catalan nation. His own Government has withdrawn all aids to kindergarten for children from 0 to 3 years-old, the very pre-school establishments on which young mothers depend in order to be able to work full time. So why delay to a hypothetical future Catalonia what can be done today? And not only to help young mothers but also young fathers…

As regards violence, I’m left with two potent images: one from the new film Refugiado directed by Diego Lerman, who was inspired to write it when he saw a woman attacked in the street by her husband before his very eyes. The little boy Matías, age 8, and on the run with his pregnant mother from his murderous dad, has a conversation on the phone with him: “If you love her so much”, he asks really distressed, “why do you hurt her?” The other image comes from an Italian campaign, in which some boys, ages 6 to 12, are introduced to Martina, a girl about 10. They’re asked to caress and kiss her face, which they all do very sweetly–and then to hit her. Taken aback, all the boys refuse to use violence against the girl: as one sentences, this is not what a man does. I only wish all the men who do use violence could be shamed by other men into understanding that they do not deserve the honour of being called a man, much less a human being.

I have not joined the local demonstration in Barcelona today, though I have crossed paths with it as I walked to La Virreina to see an exhibition by the renowned French woman photographer Sophie Calle, ‘Modus Vivendi’. What better way to celebrate women’s work, right? I have been distressed by some of Calle’s autobiographical works, presenting her as vulnerable because of her body (she has even worked as a stripper) or her relationships with men. The main segment of the exhibition had to do with one of her peculiar projects: she passed to a variety of women an email which her lover had sent her announcing that he was ending their relationship. Each of these women analyzed the lover’s pathetic, whiny letter from her own vantage point, determined by age and occupation. The result is a frankly hilarious deconstruction of romance, right now one of the worst vampires sucking energy off women, together with fashion and the cult of youth.

Then, to complete my peculiar homage to women I have read La guerra secreta de los sexos, a fascinating volume that María Lafitte, the Countess of Campo Alange, had the temerity to publish in 1948, under Franco’s regime and one year before de Beauvoir published The Second Sex. I marvel not only at her bravery but at how profoundly feminist her book is, and how valid her view of women’s subordination is still today. If you’ve never heard of Lafitte, she founded in 1960 the Seminario de Estudios sobre la Mujer, the first one in Spain. Like the editors of her text, re-published in 2008, I had serious misgivings that she would offer a right-wing version of women’s mission in support of the fatherland, closest to Pilar Primo de Rivera, the regime’s main female spokesperson. This is not at all the case; Lafitte is no left-wing, radical feminist like the ones that would appear in the 1960s but she is quite outspoken in her own mission to highlight the strategies used by patriarchy to diminish women physically and mentally. Her view is that patriarchy of the traditional kind ended in the 19th century when legislation took much power away from patriarchal family men; we are, then, immersed in the long process of building a new system which she thinks will take very long to accomplish, perhaps centuries. I see myself like her in 1948, just one of the few free enough to hurry the process along, surrounded by many more freer women than Lafitte but also by millions of other women stuck in the mud of what I can only call enslavement.

Over lunch I hear on TV the news about that young Moroccan woman, resident in Rubí, just a few kilometres from my university, who has been arrested for inducing women to join the Islamic State. She herself abandoned her husband, kidnapping their three-year-old boy, and moved to Syria. A Spanish woman lawyer specializing in cases like this one explains that women are lured into joining this barbaric kind of patriarchy (as seen by this week’s destruction of the Assyrian city of Nimrud) by the promising of finding the man of their dreams: a handsome warrior that will protect them. My appalled husband complains loudly that the authorities should launch a campaign against that kind of gendered brainwashing but I find myself telling him that, then, another campaign needs to be launched against other forms of enslavement. Like Fifty Shades of Gray, the film so many Western women are freely choosing to see (with their girl friends) and which is giving men the excuse to say that all we want is a master to enslave us –whether he is Christian (Grey) or Muslim…

Only 364 International Patriarchal Men’s Day left for the next International Woman’s Day, then…

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AND NOW FOR THE ASEXUALS…: CEASELESS LABELLING IN GENDER STUDIES

In the process of reviewing an ongoing PhD dissertation, I learn about the recent scholarly interest on asexuality. Apparently, some of the key volumes are Anthony Bogaert’s Understanding Asexuality (2012), Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks’ edited collection Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (2014) and The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality (2014) by Julie Sondra Decker (which has a five-star rating on Amazon.com!).

Asexuality, it seems, is being vindicated as a legitimate sexual identity and/or orientation in yet another attempt at de-stigmatizing what others treat as a disease, whether physical or psychological. Also, to question and challenge the widespread sexualisation of human life in the 21st century. The dissertation also teaches me that there are many asexual communities, the largest being the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), founded in 2001 by David Jay. The main novel dealing with asexuality seems to be Keri Hulme’s 1984 Booker-Prize winner The Bone People.

If I understand matters correctly, asexuality is by no means the same as celibacy, which is the lack of sexual activity some persons vow to comply with for religious (or other) reasons. Asexuals are not frigid, either. Now called ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ or HSDD, colloquially-named frigidity is regarded officially by psychiatrists as a sexual dysfunction causing distress, hence in need of a cure (HSDD was labelled a disorder as recently as 1977). There is plenty of criticism against this intervention of medical science into sexual normativity and against the pathologizing of desire, which, obviously self-defined asexuals resist. As we all should.

I learn all this one day after discussing with an MA tutoree working on a dissertation about the slow visibilization of bisexuality whether we, in Gender Studies, are making any sense at all (I should extend this to activism and the lives of individual persons). Now, the problem with bisexuality is that it appears to be disruptive of LGTB labelling as, famously, it is not clear whether bisexuality is an inborn identity/orientation like the others, heterosexuality included, or the complete denial that sexuality can be determined. I engaged in a peculiar conversation with my student as a) I have no idea whether bisexual people feel an inclination towards males an females from a very early age, b) I often wonder how many people would turn out to be bisexual if only the accidents of their biography led them this way. I recall very distinctly the words of a male student I once had, who claimed he was not gay: he just had fallen in love with a man.

Committing the sin of ageism, I tended to believe that asexuality is a phase of life, or even, phases which may alternate with bouts of sexual activity. It seems I’m awfully wrong. Asexuals simply do not feel an interest in sex, which puts them, understandably, in a very awkward position regarding both hetero-normativists and LGTB activists, all of them defining human beings according to their sexual activity. I am personally sick and tired of the supposition that sex is so central to our lives which is why I welcome the emergence of the asexual position, as it is a true challenge to the way we have understood personal identity in the last 100 years. I can imagine what coming out as an asexual entails and it cannot be easy: you’re just frigid/abnormal/a freak, you haven’t found the right person(s), I’ll teach you what sexual arousal is about., etc., etc. As long as anyone who feels normal to themselves suffer the prejudice others heap on them, we, in Gender Studies, must struggle to defend them and make room for the free expression of their identities.

Having said that, I must confess I am puzzled indeed. Not by the existence of men and women unconcerned about sex, as everyday experience indicates they are around indeed, but by their need to form communities, develop new labels, stand out. I have never been particularly fond of the LGTB label as I find it anti-heterosexual in quite a prejudiced, even gross way (it seems to respond to the need of having a common enemy and denies us, heterosexuals, the chance of opposing patriarchal hetero-normativity). I’d much rather we all used ‘queer’ in the sense of ‘anti-normative’ and let people be, avoiding the essentialisms that plague the gender-related labels.

Bisexual and asexual are not really free, either, from this essentialism as they seem to override other possibilities, namely, that the individual’s biography passes through sexual phases in a much more fluctuating way. I don’t find it very hard to imagine someone who engages in heterosexual sex during a certain period of his/her life, then combines this with homosexual sex or goes through a strict homosexual period, and then lives off sex for a while, perhaps to start all over again. Why, then, this need to attach labels to what we do in bed and with whom? Not to raise the obvious politically incorrect matter of where we put the limits to what is acceptable in human sexuality.

I do not know how and when this ceaseless process of labelling will end, if ever. Asexuality, in any case, opens up onto an unmapped territory. Let me explain. What is usually condemned by the bigoted is engaging in a particular activity which appears to be abnormal but which is not really so. The, if you allow me, originality of the asexual position is that it is not even about refraining from doing something, as asexuals are not, like celibate individuals, actively rejecting or avoiding sex. Asexuality questions the very idea that having sex is central to human life and, thus, their lack of sexual activity becomes not a lack at all. It is even quite in-your-face: why would it bother anyone that someone does not do something? (=have sex).

What is found to be annoying about asexuality and the reason why the label is criticised so harshly, I believe, is that it highlights the absurd importance that sex has gained in our lives. I’ll try to draw an analogy with sports (in a way, sex is a kind of sport today): people who practice sports believe that life without exercising is empty, but people who are not keen on sports do not feel this is the case. Now, imagine a situation in which you would have to silence the fact that you don’t like sports for fear of being labelled a freak…

What a strange world we live in, really.

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