Obeasts, Meta-activism and Big Bothering

by Carl Dyke

On the theory of rero, here is the penultimate draft of the essay I’ve written for Rachel’s edited volume on her Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies (MOCS) project. Comments are not just welcome but encouraged and will be seriously considered for incorporation when helpful. Please be advised that this is probably going to be the most explicitly theoryish of the contributions, so the rhetorical task of this piece is to do a certain kind of high-cultural burnishing. Other contributors will be far more ‘accessible’. Full text with notes (and the notes are half the fun) here (updated 10/15).

Obeasts, Meta-activism and Big Bothering
Carl Dyke
Methodist University, Department of History

“[Fat] appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”
– Karl Marx, Capital, 1867

Activism is about taking sides. The good side, of course, is the one we take. Yet in the world of fat there seem to be two sides making contradictory claims to goodness. The medical establishment and its advocate Michele Obama argue that because fat is associated with various unpleasant and expensive health troubles, there should be less of it. The fat acceptance establishment, on the other hand, argues that because fat is associated with various pleasant, healthy human beings, there should be – well, not more of it, but more acceptance of it and less fretting about it. Who can argue with either of these reasonable points, both well-supported by ample evidence?

Certainly not artist Rachel Herrick. Rachel is in favor of both health and pleasant humanity, each of which have historically been secured in a wide variety of ways.

This is trivially self-evident. So when activists start choosing up sides about one or another specific way of being healthy and pleasant, it seems that something else must be at issue. Metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties, perhaps. In this sense Rachel and her art are meta-activist. She is not taking sides, but noticing, thinking and making art about the taking of sides.

The fat activisms, pro and con, share fat as their common ground. Their basic formulae are ‘fat bad’ and ‘fat good’ (or, for the subtle, ‘fat not bad’). So fat is a definite thing to be fought over, a marked attribute or ‘stigma’. Insofar as fat is associated with persons, fat is transformed by the terrible alchemies of common sense into a stable and contestable identity for those persons, asserted positively or ascribed negatively, just like race, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. And like any stigma, fat is a wicked simplifier. When fat is around it is the default topic, an “undesired differentness… breaking the claim that… other attributes have on us.” Like DuBois’ black skin, fat turns human beings into problems.

In Goffman’s sense then, and DuBois’s, Mead’s and Hegel’s before him, fat is not so much a thing as a relationship, a symbolic representation of relative position and status on the intersecting hierarchies of attributes assigned meaning and access to ‘goods’ by our particular cultural order. It’s part of the assemblage of our reality, and as such it’s as real as real gets. But as with all of our assemblages, it could have been (and was, as we see from Fraulein von Willendorf) assembled otherwise. All of our critical codes tell us that fat is not a Thing or Essence in a permanent, Platonic sense, but rather a more local arrangement of stuff. If we want to accomplish something other than what the current arrangement accomplishes, we might want to remain attentive to the locality of that arrangement, keep thinking about what the current order of thought does and does not accomplish. And because these local things have a tendency to transform in our imaginations and practices into Things, and from there dictate stories about the timeless, immutable Nature of Reality, it would be helpful to embed some contingency in the language we use to talk about them. So because it’s not a Thing but sometimes we treat it like one, we could instead call fat a thingish.

As Marx said about gods and commodities, we get ourselves into the worst trouble when we reify vital human relationships into dead objects, fetishes that we then oppress ourselves with. “The concept of reification is used by Marx to describe a form of social consciousness in which human relations come to be identified with the physical properties of things, thereby acquiring an appearance of naturalness and inevitability.” As Latour points out, though (still following Marx), fetishes are not merely errors, they’re what we make the world out of and think with. It’s not therefore a matter of defetishizing our thinking, but of refetishizing it in some more appealing way.

Treating the fat thingish like a Thing is therefore a critical category error: accepting as natural and inevitable the tropes of the unappealing cultural order and squabbling over them. Negotiating with the Tyrant Thing is what stigmatized people normally do as they try to normalize their stigma, but it’s a challenge within the normal dynamics of stigma, not against them. As Zizek notes (shifting here to the Lacanian code):

The more the subject’s structure is “narcissistic,” the more he blames the big Other, and thus asserts his dependence on it. The “culture of complaint” thus calls on the big Other to intervene, and to set things straight…. Thus, is not the “culture of complaint” today’s version of the hysterical impossible demand, addressed to the Other, which effectively wants to be rejected, since the subject grounds its existence in its complaint: “I am insofar as I make the Other responsible and/or guilty for my misery”? The gap here is insurmountable between this logic of complaint and the true “radical” (“revolutionary”) act which, instead of complaining to the Other and expecting it to act (i.e. displacing the need to act onto it), suspends the existing legal frame and itself accomplishes the act. What is wrong with the complaint of the truly deprivileged is that, instead of undermining the position of the Other, they still address It: they, translating their demand into legalistic complaint, confirm the Other in its position by their very attack.

This is a losing game, and more specifically a self-defeating one in the sense that the self is constructed out of the materials of perpetual defeat. If our identity is about oppression, if heroic resistance to oppression is what gives us our special nobility, who are we if we’re not oppressed? These identities are caught in a mirror trap, dependent on what they reject. They are not to celebrate and defend, they are to overthrow by any means necessary. As Appiah notes in relation to racial stigma and identity,

I hope I seem sympathetic to this story [of reconstructing negative scripts positively]. I am sympathetic. I see how the story goes. It may even be historically, strategically necessary for the story to go this way. But I think we need to go on to the next necessary step, which is to ask whether the identities constructed in this way are ones we can all be happy with in the longer run…. It is at this point that someone who takes autonomy seriously will want to ask whether we have not replaced one kind of tyranny with another.

“So here are my positive proposals,” Appiah continues: “live with fractured identities, engage in identity play; find solidarity, yes, but recognize contingency, and, above all, practice irony.”

Irony is not in the first instance about acting, it’s about seeing. Seeing double, seeing two or more ways of seeing simultaneously. To see out of the mirror traps of good/bad, right/wrong activism we would have to find a way to see fat that denatures and denormalizes fat and its identifications, to shift fat out of the discourses in which it’s a thingish to take self-defeating sides about and reframe it as a different sort of thingish altogether. This is what The Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies does, by renaturing and renormalizing fat within the tangential tropics of endangered species conservation, a set of relationships in which its meaning and value are quite different.

And ironically, something to fight about after all, just as we fight to preserve the magnificent natural diversity of the Earth and all of its precious creatures. In reframing the fight about fat in terms of the discourse of nature and conservation, Rachel is practicing a kind of conceptual aikido. I’ll call it Big Bothering as a play on the Lacanian Big Other and Zizek’s gesture at revolutionary maximalism. Rachel isn’t going to be taking to the streets or to the bush, but she wants to keep the conceptual blows from falling – ‘fat bad’, ‘fat good’ – and turns sideways as they arrive, into the alternate knowledge system of Nature.

Nature, after all, is an automatic good. No, more than that – nature is not good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral, wholesome or unwholesome – it just is. Against sacred nature the profanities of judgment and stigma are powerless, ruled out, sidestepped. The obeast participates in this transcendence of the social Big Other, which reduces people to fat and then fights over whether to reduce the fat, as an irreducible essence. To put this a little differently, Rachel has things to say about fat that can’t be said in the language of fat without devolving into the narcissism of complaint.

Of course there are troubles embedded in Nature fetishism also; nature has its own traps, as strategies to naturalize race, alternate sexualities, alcoholism and many other thingishes has shown. There may be no absolute, permanent safe places. Anything that stays still long enough becomes an easy target, hence an imprisoning fortress. Rachel’s strategy is to keep moving, to keep her discursive crop diversified so she doesn’t get caught in any one monocultural blight, any one conceptual drought. Rachel isn’t much interested in the ‘is fat good or bad’ conversation, so she moves to the Nature discourse where that conversation makes no sense. It’s not that she wants to be an animal, of course – it’s that animals can’t be talked about in the specific way she’s interested in unprobleming. The irony of the Rachel/obeast’s alienation into problematic animality is that this is the kind of dodge that’s needed to start talking about people as people again, not as problems.

And here we find the thread that runs through all of Rachel’s work, from the paintings that drew on old life-saving manuals (you have to subdue the drowner before you can save her) and primers on how to tame a minah bird (starting by clipping its wings), to a planned project transforming vending machines into “Proble-matics” that dispense problems in case you should ever embarrassingly be caught out in public without one.

For Rachel, the problem is problems. In the gaze of the Big Other we seem to need to be needed, and we’re needy to make others needful. We give ourselves jobs by making problems, we make ourselves and each other problems. So we can ‘fix’ us. It’s all very well-intentioned, this orientation toward crisis and rescue, but it’s also radically anxietizing; and it may be keeping us from noticing that there’s not much need anymore to be thinking in terms of problems at all.

Back through the looking-glass of the the 19th Century, Marx opined that history only gives us problems we can solve. Is the problem of problems solveable, Rachel wonders? Is our creative infinity of contrived non-problems too much even for human ingenuity to solve – too big, too many, too poorly-defined? Could we do, could we be, without problems?


22 Responses to “Obeasts, Meta-activism and Big Bothering”

  1. Carl, since you are an historian, I would have expected something with a bit more historical perspective. I note, in particular, the now reversed polarity of the earlier relationship between portliness and social class that survives, for example in the image of the plutocrat in the game Monopoly. To be of weight and substance used to be a good thing, a marker of worldly status and success, compared to the scrawny proles and peasants. Fast food has flipped this evaluation, making obesity a symptom of poverty and poor judgment. It is one thing to empathize with the plight of those who suffer the stigma (been there, done that, still overweight myself), but to be on the side of Big Macs and “Supersize me”? An ironic position, indeed.

  2. Thanks, John. You’re right. The good Fraulein gestures at that historicizing move, but it’s ho-hummily tropic in the pro-fat movement and therefore kind of the opposite of what I want to get at here. In fact, bothering expectations is pretty much Rachel’s game, and mine. So no, you’re not overweight. Next move.

  3. Btw, I wondered if you in particular might pick up on my suggestion that Rachel is practicing a kind of conceptual aikido. That might help make sense of why neither of us is interested in the kind of frontal assaults the historicist move you accurately sketch out here represents.

  4. “Conceptual aikido” is a nice idea. But in my very limited understanding of aikido, the point is go with the flow of the opponent’s attack, thus throwing them off balance, a technique which has immediately observable physical effects. How does this work in verbal or other cultural interactions. Is there a danger here of reducing critique to ironic commentary only appreciated by cognoscenti, abandoning the hope to make a significant difference in the world?

  5. Sure, again you’re right. But let’s slow down. The ethos of aikido is to refuse the fight your opponent offers you specifically, and to refuse fighting as much as possible generally. It’s to turn the energy of a blow away from its target, and to turn the energy of fighting away from fighting. At the end of this piece I talk about the way we make ourselves and our meanings by making problems. That’s the fight I see Rachel refusing. So there’s no abandoning of hope here. There’s a redirection of hope. And not to make a significant difference in the world, which is the problem-making, problem-solving agenda. What might we do instead?

  6. In my own case, an increasingly seductive temptation is to adopt a Daoist/Zen attitude, take a lively interest and enjoy what life hands me and not worry too much about problems to whose solution my contributions will be minuscule. Or, if you prefer an example from the West, to emulate Candide and cultivate my garden, leaving the world to go to hell however it will. My still Lutheran guilt-filled conscience and an unwillingness to leave my daughter and grandkids to fend for themselves stand in the way.

  7. I think the Zen approach–or some version of if–is nearly as good as it gets. Personally, my goal is recognize which problems are “optional” and exist through a wide subscription to them (fat bias being one, fat positivity being another) and refusing to participate or allowing myself to get all anxious, which is something I do. We are cajoled to worry constantly; the parade of woe and wrongs is unending. For one thing, worry and insecurity is an effective way to sell products, no? So, allow me to be idealistic here (not something I usually do in public): what if we critically took measure of all of the things we’re worried about and assessed whether any given issue is one that we a) should be worried about, b) feel that we ought to be worried about, c) is a non-issue that we’ve gussied up to look like one d) is something we do not need to worry about, e) other. I think just achieving that kind of critical distance in my daily life would be a big step for me, and I suspect for others. I do think that there are things worth worrying about, but I suspect there are even more things that aren’t. Further, I suspect that things we take for granted as definitely worth worrying about may just not be.

    Like unread magazines, worries/problems stack up and clutter. So perhaps I choose to unsubscribe from the ones I never read but a) want others to think I do when they come over b) want to imagine I will c) still get out of allegiances of various kinds (regional pride, family, etc). It’s a pain to do this–a task I’ve saved for a rainy day– because of auto-renewals, etc. One person dropping a particular magazine makes practically no difference–after all ads are where the money is–but magazines and worries (and old gym memberships) make good money off many people’s inabilities to cull them.

    On a case by case basis, this strategy of disengagement is selfish and perhaps rude; it maybe becomes something meaningful when it is the habit of many people. All of this to say, I think that there are “immediately observable physical effects” associated with refusing to engage if we take the long view. As an artist, making work that makes people think about thinking is as good as I want to get.

  8. I’m not sure I see why opting out of the communal problem-sphere is any more selfish and rude than, say, deciding not to get cable tv. When people complain about the bill, or the reception, or the channel lineup, we can just smile a little smile and go on about our business.

    Where it does get a little trickier is the big structury problems like class/race/gender injustice. I think those are open to the same argument, but the power dynamics of the conversations are asymmetrical so we may well end up with an unwanted subscription to the Wall Street Journal or whatnot. But I still think it works out better to use it to line the birdcage than to storm the editorial offices with pitchforks. OK, maybe now the metaphor is coming apart….

  9. I think we’re safer saying there are lots of ‘problems’ that don’t need to be problems, and maybe we shouldn’t be so sure we know which is which. But that’s a very thin gloss on the paper, and your work, not least because if we’re not careful it draws us back into the problem-orientation that’s being bothered. Bothered, not ‘solved’.

  10. I mostly agree with Rachel. The Zen approach, or something like it, is nearly as good as it gets. I have to remember, though, that going with the flow a lot of Japanese monks found themselves supporting Japanese militarism during WWII.

  11. Yeah, that’s not a small thing. But I think it would be safe to describe militarists as activists, nationalism as a form of extreme attachment, and then perhaps appeal to the Dao: “when we abstain from action, good order is universal.”

  12. The tricky thing is that to be selfless is not necessarily to be nice. To the Dao we are all straw dogs.

  13. And this would be why I mix and match my theories rather than trying for rigorous consistency. I guess that makes me a running straw dog. But not dogmatic.

  14. I like it, Carl. As per our recent discussion I’m not persuaded by your emphasis on relations, being more inclined toward the “ain’t nothing but a thang” POV. But that’s just me. You present the ideas clearly and intriguingly, tying them specifically to the subject of Rachel’s installation. What’s important for me to bear in mind that you’re offering neither an explanation nor a definitive interpretation of the art, but rather another provocation directed toward the viewer of or participant in the Obeast experience. And it is provocative. Well done!

  15. Thanks John, that’s it exactly. What’s really fun is that ICA is publishing two obeast books. My piece is for the second volume of critical commentary on the obeast as art. The first volume is scholarship of the obeast as a real creature (anatomy, mating habits, history in religious iconography, ethnographic encounters, etc.). What’s obvious is that the first volume is part of the art itself. What’s not quite as obvious is that the second volume is too, just as you say!

  16. Problems are the only thing you can make money off of. Bride of Chuckie and I were ruminating yet again last night about the acronymization of every little bodily anomaly (e.g. farts as ADD (Anal Deflux Disease)) as the target of pharmacological and other professional intervention [WARNING: ask your doctor if you’re strong enough for flatulence]. So I’ve been locating the obeast in the Foucauldian realm of biopower to prime the move to the realm of the endangered species — dogged by the gaze.

  17. Nice piece, Carl; I like the formulation that “the problem is problems.” I have a little difficulty with your statement that defining oneself in response to the “big Other” is self-defeating. There are lots of people who define themselves according to their problem who would say that isn’t so. Whether they start by internalizing (“The problem with my fat is a personal failing”) or externalizing (“The problem with my fat is society’s attitude”), they organize their lives to respond to the problem, and, in many cases, win the battle as they see it, losing weight or accumulating markers of success despite society’s stigma. Sure, even after the battle’s over, many of them still define themselves according to the problem. That’s not necessarily troubling to them, though; they are war veterans who enjoy reminiscing about their accomplishments. It’s not the way I want to live, but I don’t know that would call it self-defeating either.

  18. Bob, that’s a great point and from a therapeutic / existential perspective may be the best one can hope for. Which then creates a sort of humane momentum to not compare that outcome invidiously with some post-problem ideal. But I think art is a place where we can think about how stuff works in a more creative frame, and cast an eye outward from our various pragmatic accommodations to possibilities that are being blocked by them.

    So while I think we do need problems, not least for the reasons DtE suggests, it’s also worth thinking somewhere or other about whether that’s structural, optional, or most likely what arrangement of both. And this is not to say that the biopower fish can’t also be fried on the obeast-oil stove, just that doing so is a move in one kind of game that Rachel also wants to decenter, as they say.

    Btw, Bob, I think you would find Jenna Howard’s work on recovery from recovery (cited) fascinating.

  19. I do appreciate what Rachel is doing and think it has application even in the problem-saturated environment of therapy. In my practice, though most clients want to work on problems, some are receptive to the suggestion that they simply observe themselves and the events they would normally construe as problems, accepting what they see rather than immediately trying to change things. I’m doing more and more of that sort of observing in my own life. Thanks for the suggestion; I’ll take a look at it.


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