A Productive Fake Has a Stake: Unnaming in The Owls (September 11, 2009)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
During the summer of 2009, while I was building this video-book with the team at Vectors/ Institute for Multimedia Literacy at USC, I also produced a micro-budget, collective, feature narrative/documentary film, The Owls. This is one of a cluster of blogs where my thinking on other projects was influenced by my YouTube work, and vice versa.
Media activism has long played a part in international social movements with diverse goals and tactics including: empowering local people to tell their own stories, documenting social movements for the historical record, intervening in mainstream discourse to ensure fair representation, engaging in media literacy education, creating alternative media, and engaging in research about the role of media in development and activism.

Transgender studies looks at "behaviors, bodies, and subjective identities which contest common Eurocentric notions of gender has a history stretching back at least to the early 20th century ... By mid-century, feminist scholars had appropriated scientific paradigms that posited a distinction between bodily sex and psychosocial gender, and deployed them in politically radical ways that envisioned greater equality between genders. In the closing years of the last century, an upstart generation of queer theorists further disarticulated the presumed coherence of heteronormative personhood to create a broader awareness of just how diverse gendered identity can be."[cit]

In "trans men and butch women: a summary perspective," StudWithSwag writes: "female masculinity and male masculinity/ born in the right body and born in the wrong body/ being mistaken for a man and being mistaken for a woman/ female identity and male identity."[cit]

One of my three founding calls for this project is working collaboratively: benefiting from the diversity of our approaches, training, experience, and positions leads to the best media praxis. We need to be brave enough to teach each other and work past specialization, in the variety of languages in which we are comfortable and trained.
Over the past few days I've been teaching my recent writing about fake docs on YouTube to my media studies seniors while thinking a lot about The Owls (and reading trans theory, but more on this below) and chatting with my friend and colleague Jennifer Friedlander on her recent writing on art-world parody and scams and reality-TV shams, as inflected by Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek. It's enough to make a girl's head swim with delight, below some avenues of flight (please, please, please respond, these ideas are new, and dangerous, and open to change):

While we were making The Owls, Campbell X, our "sound man" (she's a talented British director in her own right) noted in one of our talking-head interviews (the crew and cast were interviewed throughout the production about the themes and meta-themes of the film: queer cinema and identity, lesbian culture, aging, and the like) that as an English woman of Caribbean descent she found it important that the two black characters in the film (played by Cheryl Dunye and Skyler Cooper) were not NAMED as black in the screenplay. The B-team (shooting the "documentary" component of the film)—myself, Mariah Garnett, and Rhys Ernst—discussed (on camera) with Campbell the productive potential for unknowing in such post-identity moves.

How could we guess the complex intellectual, artistic, and political ripples that would surface just the next day upon the visit to our set of theorist and activist Jack Halberstam to engage the cast in discussions of transgender vs. butch identity and politics. For it came to our attention that the film's six characters were also unnamed in relation to their gender/sexuality identification although, given Cheryl's interests the assumption was that all the characters were probably women, lesbians, and mostly butch. Just so, it turned out that Skyler chose to play her character Skye, as an androgynous-looking but female-identified woman, just as she chooses to enact herself.

And here the "generational divide" presented itself: on one "side" the nostalgic celebration of the lesbian or female or feminist, and on the other the seeking or unmooring of gender and sexuality. During Jack's talking-head interview, he identified as "transgendered butch" and then suggested that trans people still need to be named (or counter-intuitively moored) because unknowing leaves them unseen, given how fresh and fragile and mostly invisible is this position, even as post-trans theory hopes for the differences between performativity and materiality, the image and the body, to remain unfastened and unfixed.

This brings the theoretical and political concerns that I've been toying with here, most recently, to a certain sort of front and center. Unknowing and unnaming, like any tactics or forms, are only relevant in relation to goals, communities, bodies, and practices. They too must at times float and at others be fixed. While the unknowing of race is liberating as experienced by Cheryl, Skyler, and Campbell, the unnaming of trans is experienced as silencing for Jack, Mariah, Rhys, and Deak Evgenikos. This is the ironic free-fall I've been thinking about lately: the place where the difference between The Real and the "fake," the known and the unknowable, the fixed and the uncertain, are indeterminate is an unproductive place of muddle (if perhaps fleeting fun) until they are is attached to something that matters: a stake in the future. A stake, which signifies the hard, mean, and cutting over the soft, drab, and unmoving (of, say, the anchor).

As we discussed in class yesterday, while it once seemed enough to work toward a future where people learned that there was a critical distance between themselves and the "objective" or "ideological" productions of dominant culture, this knowledge, so obviously secured in what Friedlander identifies as the contemporary audience's "knowing very well but even so" is not enough if it occurs in isolation, as an end in itself, disconnected from a body, a movement, or best of all, a project of becoming.

Whereas in my recent writing I had been wanting an anchor (to the Real, or what Zizek calls "the shock of the truth"), I now reconsider this to be an attachment and a commitment to a dream of a better reality.