March 14, 2006

Objection = death.

There's an interesting thing happening in my LGBT Studies class right now upon which I feel compelled to comment. Last Thursday, in addition to Silverlake Life, we watched a clip of a performance titled "Death of an Asshole" by Emilio Cubeiro (I'm not sure I want to search for a link while on a library computer, so that will have to wait until I get home). It's from a Rosa von Praunheim film called "Silence = Death", the second of a three-film series about AIDS. It's graphic and tasteless -- the instructor acknowledged this -- and severely in-your-face. Out of context, it's horrifying for what it appears to show. In context, it's a work of deliberate shock and provocation. We watched it out of context, as evidenced by the following comments on the class discussion board.

  • " heart started racing, and my stomach dropped... I was horrified at what I had just witnessed, believing the entire time that what I had just seen had really happened."
  • "I literally had nightmares and couldn't sleep."
  • "I had basically started feeling panicked when the gun came out and stayed that way until the end of the clip."

The interesting thing that happened between then and now is that someone in the class got sufficiently upset to take a complaint all the way to the chancellor of the university. That's skipping about five levels of authority along the way -- the TAs, the instructor, the department head, the dean of letters and sciences, and probably someone else in Berkeley's labyrinthine beauracracy as well -- and the instructor is furious. Here's the problem: he says he's furious that the student lodged the complaint without bringing the objection to him first. It seems to me that he's actually furious that the person objected to seeing the clip at all. Lecture today began with the angry announcement that this is not a class in which one can sit back and watch, or not watch, and not become involved with the material. In other words, if you weren't willing and prepared to be smashed over the head with the absolute maximum horror of the AIDS epidemic, you shouldn't have enrolled in this lower-division LGBT Studies survey course (notwithstanding the announcement the first week that yes, this is an American Cultures credit class, and if the only reason you're in the class is for American Cultures credit that's fine).

As you might be able to tell, I object. It's like saying that if you weren't prepared to see large-screen video footage of cattle slaughter and in vivo fur-stripping, you shouldn't have clicked on this vegan-slanted blog. It's out of proportion. More to the point, it means the instructor is very obviously not a neutral party to whom one can go and complain about material presented in class, because the political slant which one should reasonably expect from such a class is in him both radical and severely personal. So while I, if I had been that disturbed, might have taken my complaint to the department instead of the chancellor, I see with perfect clarity and sympathy why the student didn't take it to the instructor.

I'm trying, and failing, to form a single cogent yet comprehensive question to present here to encourage discussion. So: you have a public university, attended by rational and emotionally competent adults. You have an academic department, inextricably linked with radical and confrontational politics. You have a film clip which combines an analyzable political position with horrifying imagery (and the third of the three comments quoted above is mine, to give you a sense of who you have to be to be freaked out by it). You have a student breaking etiquette and protocol, and an instructor for whom both the political and the professional are personal. What do you think?

Posted by dianna at March 14, 2006 03:22 PM

I tried to look it up but none of the links actually say what happens. Why won't you?!

Also, they all seem to think it's an audio recording.

Posted by: jason at March 14, 2006 04:13 PM

Hum. Without knowing the specifics, I'm inclined to place a pox on both houses. Going straight to the Chancellor seems like a deliberate attack on the professor's autonomy as an instructor, beyond a simple breach of protocol. At the same time, the professor seems to have screwed up by not preparing the class adequately for the clip. Moreover, he appears to have created an environment hostile to comments and criticism. And now he's reacting to the student's actions by getting hostile and defensive, which will only exacerbate the problem.

So: The professor screwed up and, given that he isolated himself from student criticism, the only way he'd get proper feedback was from someone higher up in the University. But the student screwed up by going straight to the Chancellor. That seems like a disproportionate response to the problem. Still, though, I'd like to know what the student did before going to the Chancellor. If he or she approached the department and was rebuffed or dismissed, I'd say that approaching the Chancellor was justified.

Posted by: Zach S. at March 14, 2006 05:13 PM

I agree that going straight to the chancellor was a little strong, unless that student and the chancellor are particularly close friends, but I am all for leaping levels of bureaucrazy in order to get a desired effect. Expecting autonomy in a hierarchical management structure such as a university is wishful thinking.

The fact that the professor then wasted time during class to whine about the student's actions (essentially calling you all unworthy of his Word) just makes it that much more pitiful.

Student: 1
Professor: 0

Posted by: Erik at March 14, 2006 05:39 PM

I'm with Zach on this one. Nobody to root for here. But the professor, at least, should know better.

I'm also curious as to the nature of the clip.

Posted by: holohan at March 14, 2006 05:43 PM

I think it is funny, and everyone got exactly what they deserved. The professor is clearly an ass who deserves a good thrashing. The student is a moron for wasting time in an LGBT class. That both ended up upset is a fitting end to the whole sorry saga.

Posted by: Answer at March 14, 2006 06:41 PM

Damnit, I'm in the middle of composing a too-long and too-self-important response here. I do not need to be distracted by a troll at this point.

Posted by: Dianna at March 14, 2006 07:47 PM

I'm actually hesitant to be the first one to summarize this particular performance piece on the internet, only because no one else has seen fit to take away from its significant shock value by doing so. I just don't want to be the first, you know? If you'd like to know and don't think you'll ever find yourself watching the film, you can email me and I'll tell you. Or, okay, Jason, I told you in person. Do you think I should just post it here?

As of this evening, the instructor has posted a message to the class website (where, I'm pleased to report, my first post on the subject last night kicked off a huge discussion) saying that, basically, he's calmed down a bit, he's glad people are talking about it, even if the talking is currently taking the form of an uproar. And he apologized to those people who really lost sleep and/or lunch over it, which was apparently something that he wasn't expecting.

I've been finding myself rather more sympathetic to his position than I expected to be. Yes, activism is an iffy thing to bring into a classroom when you're the instructor. On the other hand, there are some academic disciplines which really can't, at least yet, be totally separated from their associated politics. When the discipline is LGBT Studies and the subject is AIDS, the politics gets pretty desperate. With that in mind, I can definitely deal. After all, we social sciences people love everything as long as it's in context.

Posted by: Dianna at March 14, 2006 10:45 PM

Oh god.

I posted 2 comments on the class website, out of what is now a 14-comment thread.

Today the instructor posted a lengthy monologue/announcement thing on the front page of the class website (as opposed to where the comment thread is, which is buried), discussing some of the comments. That is, mine. Only mine! Gack! Why? Not any of the people saying they totally hate him for showing it, not anyone discussing the content that we were supposed to be paying attention to, but only me and my (what I thought were) thoughtful comments about classroom politics. Ack!

I'm trying to compose a response, but can't decide whether to be conciliatory (because I think I've been interpreted as more antagonistic than I actually intended to be) or argumentative (because the comments are ripe with possibility for debate) or even just to shut up and let it pass. I suspect the latter is the smart way to go. I don't want to be in a front-page argument with my instructor when I'm not even sure what the hell I'm arguing about or whether he interpreted me correctly. But you know how I am about the last word. It actually hurts me to relinquish it.

And now, of course, my lunch break is over because I've been agonizing over this. Grgh!

Posted by: Dianna at March 15, 2006 01:50 PM

I think the honorable thing to do, Dianna, is transfer. Your teacher won't be able to touch you at, say, ITT Technical Institute. And I know they wouldn't show you something like that there.

About whether or not you should say on the blog what you told me--well, I dunno, it was certainly gross and probably horrifying to see, but I think its power is in seeing it. But then again, if people can email and ask you there's probably no good reason to mention it here, since it obviously doesn't make you comfortable to do so.

Posted by: jason at March 15, 2006 06:30 PM

I haven't seen it, but it seems likely that the film depicted a "gun fucking," by which I mean a gun barrel shoved repeatedly up the ass to symbolize unprotected anal sex in an era of AIDS. Am I right?

Posted by: Eliot at March 16, 2006 10:28 AM

Not really.

Posted by: Dianna at March 16, 2006 02:19 PM


Posted by: Eliot at March 16, 2006 03:28 PM

There was a totally hardcore scene like that in Tetsuo II. Still wasn't nearly as good as the first Tetsuo though.

Posted by: docta v at March 16, 2006 03:33 PM

Also, why can't you just tell us what happened in the disturbing scene? Everyone wants to know and the movie is over 15 years old.

Posted by: docta v at March 16, 2006 03:42 PM

and really anyone who is curious enough to google the film and then read all the way down the string of comments to find the description is kind of too far in to object to spoilers.

Posted by: didofoot at March 16, 2006 05:00 PM