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The F in FWART

December 18, 2009

DAM (Dyke Action Machine) wages war against the status quo with their art.  But it’s no big deal, really, because it’s funny war art.  It’s FWART.

Or maybe it is a big deal.  Humor transforms the effects of visual images and the political messages that they contain.  But how, exactly, does humor transform DAM’s agitprop? What, I want to ask, is the political function of the F in FWART?

Function 1: F is for the expression and release of tension
. Consider DAM’s 1994 poster for a faux lesbian action movie, Straight to Hell.  The poster is, according to DAM, a response to lesbians of color “being expelled from the American military at a much higher rate than the white enlisted men focused on by the media.”  A form of revenge is imagined in the broadside: “Now she’s out for blood…,” it claims.  But while the poster gestures toward revenge as a means for expressing and releasing anger, it actually uses humor for that purpose.  The women’s anger in the poster is exaggerated, absurd—they’re out to kill the assholes that rejected them.  This makes their anger unreal.  It’s a joke now, it’s no big deal.

Or, maybe it is a big deal.  The poster underscores the stakes of the first function of F: to express and release tension, in this case caused by anger.  Laughing about anger can have a therapeutic effect, clearing the mind enough to carry on with your business.  If that business is fighting for gay rights, then I think we should laugh ourselves to death.  (I am ignoring, of course, the question of whether the ability to join the military ought to be considered a “right” at all). But deflating anger can be problematic too.  One of the signature problems of therapy culture (with it’s self-help books and feel good language) has been its tendency to teach individuals to cope with society, even when it’s society that’s sick.  When we laugh to cope, are we letting go of the productive, activist quality of anger?  Maybe it’s possible to laugh and still be pissed.  DAM appears to have matched their humor with their productivity—they wheat-pasted 4,000 copies of the poster in Manhattan.

Function 2:  F is for Intellect. In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1911), philosopher Henri Bergson explains that in order to “produce the whole of its effect, the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart.  Its appeal is to intelligence, pure and simple.”  DAM’s movie poster inserts an unfamiliar variable (dykes!) into a pre-packaged constant (action movie broadsides).  The poster excites the intellect because it reveals that the variable (dykes) are inappropriate without ever having to point a finger at whoever made them inappropriate.  We get the secret, and it’s fun, maybe even flirty.

And getting the joke is great, because it leads to a certain amount of intellectual camaraderie, to an experience of shared pleasure.  Humor can create community amongst people, between the us who get the joke (me, you, dykes), and them (exclusionary assholes).   The Straight to Hell poster, then, uses humor to draw the line around which political battles and negotiations can take place.  Such antagonism can be particularly productive, I think, in a (neo-liberal) era in which we fetishize consensus.  During his electoral campaign, Obama—an emblem of the consensus-fetish—described himself as the candidate best-suited to “break out of some of the ideological gridlock” in America. Obama then proceeded to break out of that ideological gridlock by choosing a homophobic pastor, Rick Warren, to read the invocation address at his inauguration.  Obama’s gesture at unity is a reminder that “unity” is not an essentially good thing.  It depends on who (or what) you are uniting.  Good for DAM, then, for uniting us at the expense of Rick Warren et. al.

But DAM’s tactic of uniting “us” by excluding “them” is not all great.  As Bergson suggests, humor does not always lead to empathy but rather a “momentary anesthesia of the heart.”  Indeed, the Straight to Hell poster creates one community by making another the butt of a joke.  But the poster nonetheless brings up a slew of issues that need to be discussed in an empathetic mode.

Take the military’s current anti-gay policy,“Don’t ask don’t tell,” for example.  “Don’t ask don’t tell” reflects the belief that gayness is okay so long as it is kept in the shadows. But keeping sexuality in the shadows means being excluded from so many rites of life.  In her new book, The Importance of Being Iceland (2009), the poet Eileen Myles describes the broader effects of not asking and not telling:

“no school dances please and no proms, and no weddings, and no cute blind date plots on teevee, no rock n roll, no movies about love, and no Valentines Day, and no in-laws, and no tax breaks, no celebrations of what you do, no songs and no schools for your kids…”

And no action movies.  In this case, Myles comments on the same condition of gay exclusion that DAM touches on with the Straight to Hell poster.  But Myles’ poetic medium excites her readers’ sense of empathy, a thing that the intellectual experience of humor tends to exclude.  For better or for worse, I’m not sure.  Just a different function.

Becky Bivens is a native of Atlanta, Georgia and a chronic barista. When she is not pouring your latte, she is either thinking about gender in American abstract art or eating a cheese sandwich. You can contact her at bivens.becky@gmail.com

8 Comments
  1. OxfordV permalink
    December 18, 2009 11:18 am

    Thanks! Really interesting, and I love your reference to Eileen Myles.

    • Becky Bivens permalink
      December 18, 2009 12:58 pm

      Thank you!

  2. farley griner permalink
    December 18, 2009 1:41 pm

    I really like the discussion of the power & the role of humor. I also love the Eileen Myles quotation.

    What do you think would happen to the military if ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ were changed to ‘everybody who’s willing to die for the U.S.A. is cool with us’?

  3. Becky Bivens permalink
    December 18, 2009 4:36 pm

    I was trying to avoid the question to keep the article short! So I’m glad you asked.

    I just wanted to reflect on the effects of “don’t ask don’t tell” less as a thing that is specific to the military and more as a thing that is broadly reflected in our society (eg. no school dances and etc).

    …So, I don’t think that “don’t ask don’t tell” should become “everybody’s who’s willing to die for us” at all. I tried to point out that it’s a q whether it’s a right to be in the military at all. I think it’s not a right…

    So, change it to “the military is not cool with us” but “gay folks are so cool with us.”

    • December 20, 2009 5:17 pm

      True, the article is about a much bigger idea than the “don’t ask, don’t tell” idea that we all associate with the US military (d-a-d-t, I think, is ridiculous). Thank you for writing this; I have really enjoyed thinking about it.

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