Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Treatments of treatment

Although a large part of what I liked about Octavia E. Butler’s work is its avoidance of strict allegory without any compromise in its imagination, I found myself strongly inclined towards an allegorical reading of the medicalization of black embodiment into “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” In the end, I’m not sure I could balance all the story’s terms according to such a schema—certainly I was surprised to find her afterword drawing connections exclusively to the medical. In retrospect, I indulged an impulse to automatically project blackness onto a black author’s work that may not be without merit, but certainly should not be undertaken without circumspection.

It might be worthwhile to share a more proximate cause of my reading of blackness into the medical domain of the story that, however relevant, may not be eagerly received in an academic setting. Just a few days before opening the Butler, I was shown the music video for Lil’ Boosie’s “Mind of a Maniac” for the first time. The video’s somewhat disturbing and problematic (even by the standards of rap videos—music videos in general, actually), but those interested can watch it below:

As is often the case with rap tropes, the association of black artistry with insanity could be construed as offensive in the hands of a less self-conscious (or whiter) performer. (Whether critical analysis falls subject to this same problem is largely behind my initial hesitation to discuss the video and embed it in my post.) But what I find remarkable about the video’s construction is the way in which Lil’ Boosie manages to perform his own conscription into a white, critical establishment that reads his performance (mostly the rapping, though the familiar child’s trick of inverting the eyelids might count as an even less ambiguous signifier) as a medically diagnosable “behaviorial trait.” All of the deviant performative gestures in the video, meant to read as tics, only appear under the confining interpolation of the medical establishment; in the studio and on “the street,” where Boosie’s performance reads more “naturally,” his intensity and verve deserve admiration, rather than the administration of treatment. Not only does it become impossible, then, to advance from Boosie’s media presentation to his actual condition*; one becomes aware of the quasi-medical and racist motivations for just this movement.

I’m happy to end with Butler, since her story of the medical interpolation of “deviant” embodiment has a much happier ending. Instead of the escalating interiorized spiral of self-destructive performance (which I’m tempted by essentialism to ascribe to masculinity and rap), we see a de-escalating interpersonal spiral of ameliorative care, which Butler’s terms allow us to associate with femininity and the family. If there’s any genuine overlap and not merely overeager superimposition in my comparison, it comes with the revelation of the Dilg facility, which (again) represents the positive inversion of the medical system in “Mind of a Maniac,” a place where “‘out-of control [“deviants”] create art and invent things’” (48). A final point—and to me the most compelling one offered by such a straightforward allegorical reading—requires we observe how the cure of feminine care for self-destructive violence seems to threaten the male with disenfranchisement. His response is initially rejection; the way Butler writes the womanly counter to and incorporation of this rejection back into the curative system strikes me as excessively optimistic, but the more beautiful for it. “Inside the car, Alan said something to the guard. I couldn’t hear what it was, but the sound of his voice reminded me of him arguing with her—her logic and her scent.” (68) Alan can no more reject the potential of the Dilg treatment than someone can choose not to smell; he is inscribed within a materialist logic of feminine care.

* Thus I resist mentioning at all the actual predicament Boosie currently faces—the death penalty—though provides most of my emotional motivations for bringing in this video, and listening to Boosie in general. Arguably, there is some justice in mentioning it, for rather than entailing any claims about Boosie’s guilt or madness, it requires we become once more attentive to the enormous and ongoing injustices in the practice of legal confinement, medical interpolation and labor exploitation in the American prison system.


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