Inga Muscio Rides Again
It's difficult to talk about Inga Muscio's new book without talking about
her first, 1998's Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. In that book,
Muscio’s voice was unabashed and appealingly obnoxious. For the most part,
it worked: even when she sounded slightly unhinged, there was little reason
to doubt that she knew her subject. Reading Cunt was like sitting down
with Muscio face-to-face, and it was clear from the outset that to like her
writing, you pretty much had to like the author herself.
Like Cunt, the new Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society is an unapologetic manifesto. Whether she’s ranting or analyzing--or some combination of the two--Muscio doesn't deal in ambiguity. She deconstructs and redefines, peeling back the layers of things that have long been accepted as truths. She rages and rambles and doubles back to repeat her arguments in italics and capital letters. When it’s done well, it's easy to remember why I loved Cunt. But Blue-Eyed Devil is frustrating enough for me to wonder whether that first book was actually as good as I remember.
Part one, "Roots," is a history lesson along the lines of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, two sources that Muscio quotes from at length. Slogging through this half of the book, it's hard to see what Muscio thinks is accomplished by retelling this history, which has already been retold, effectively and beautifully, in the aforementioned books, among others. This is not to say that this history has been told often or loudly enough, or that more inclusive histories have been well-incorporated into the popular consciousness. School kids still learn that Columbus "discovered" America, and the version of history taught in schools remains focused on the history white men have written, casting themselves as heroes and victors. Undoubtedly, there is value to highlighting the way history has been constructed, and to whose benefit, but Muscio offers nothing more than a kind of Cliff's Notes-version of A People's History. It probably should make for good reading, but it doesn't. “Branches of Oppression,” the book’s second part, is an exploration of contemporary manifestations of racist oppression, from racial profiling to environmental destruction. The long, terrible history that comprises the first half has set the stage for everything she goes on to say about “white supremacist racism,” the purported subject and setting of this “autobiography.”
Not surprisingly, the truly autobiographical parts are more engaging than the history lesson. Experience is often a better communicator than observation, and experiential details and stories are Muscio's particular strengths. Her account of seeing a black man brutalized by a gang of skinheads and not intervening stands out as one of the most vivid parts of the book. She presents action and intervention as distinct choices in light of this story and eloquently reflects on how it affected her perspective:
Feeling guilty about myself for standing on that bench like a fool does not magically disappear the Rasta gentleman's lacerations, internal wounds, scars and memories. Nothing, in fact, changes the inescapable reality that I live in an environment with skinheads who terrorize people, or that I was too afraid to think of finding a big rock and beaning Nazi Bob in the head with it. From that moment on, however, it has been impossible for me to remain unconscious of the luxury and power of choices.
Despite some strong moments like these, Blue Eyed Devil is a messy sprawl of a book that tries to tackle too many things at once. Muscio's philosophy that everything is connected gives her license to talk about everything that is even tangentially related to her asserted focus. The validity of what she has to say is obscured by her attempt to explain it all. Along with being overly ambitious, the book’s mode of constant deconstruction is exhausting, and the constant ranting is distracting. Even though she is careful to note her awareness of the guilt that plagues her in regard to the issues she discusses, the resulting sense of grief that pervades the book does little to make it readable or, ultimately, useful. Often it just feels self-indulgent.
Where Cunt used language as a starting point to talk about women's oppression, here Muscio's interrogation of every word produces more awkward results. Throughout Blue-Eyed Devil, quotation marks are placed around the names of every state to remind us that these names are constructions rather than objective truths. "Arbusto" is substituted for any mentions of "Bush," with the logic that "words give off resonations of power, and I think some people already have too much--partially because their names are invoked so often in our daily lives." While an interesting thought, this effectively takes away from the very real resonance of the Bush family name, rendering the actions of the man and his administration abstract. She refers to the United States as "Amerikkka" (which comes from the Symbionese Liberation Army) and its inhabitants as "Amerikkkans"--perhaps the one linguistic twist obvious (and awkward) enough that she doesn't explain it.
We do need to hold ourselves accountable for the past, and for the history we are creating every day. But there is a lot of room for positive variations between being willfully ignorant and letting awareness overwhelm every action. We can be aware of our history without letting it cripple us. Accountability should not mean that a person cannot "…walk though the forest without hearing the echoes of everyone in it crying out in sadness, terror, and pain.” And though we need to reckon with the terrible realities of our history, we can't romanticize an uncorrupted past, or think there is something inherently pure about being "native." It is not productive to deal in these absolutes.
"In the environment we are born into, there are many ways we learn to categorize each other, our selves, and our lived realities,” Muscio writes in the introduction. “This book, however, simply comes to you from the heart of a person who feels too much." I can’t imagine that Muscio subscribes to the stereotype of women as overly emotional creatures who can’t be trusted to think rationally. Still, she comes uncomfortably close to letting her feelings paralyze her. If her book was less meandering--and maybe if she’d left out the part where she attributes her cockroach-free home to having gently asked the bugs to leave--her good intentions might have hit their target. I really wish they had.
Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society by Inga Muscio