Saturday, January 02, 2016

I know, I know, but I can only do it once

The horrific death of Kathy Chang has generated some interesting responses since her self-immolation in 1996. I found this 2011 paper by performance artist Joseph Shahadi, entitled Burn: The Radical Disappearance of Kathy Change available as a PDF.

Shahadi quotes Paul Root Wolpe who said: "...whether or not we agree with her, there was nothing incoherent about her political positions..."

But actually Shahadi's own paper demonstrates that in fact her political positions were very much incoherent. Shahadi writes:
She concluded that Americans could eradicate corruption, unkindness, and materiality by abruptly renouncing the government of the United States, a sentiment she captured in her "Transformation Party Manifesto." She wrote, "Only our salvation is for the American people to instantaneously, simultaneously, and spontaneously denounce and renounce their government.
And then later in his paper writes:
As in her prediction - made the month of her suicide - that the US was headed into another war in Iraq, while Americans are "denied guarantees of health care and human services"
So to summarize: one moment she's calling for the end of the US government, and the next moment she's protesting Americans being denied guarantees of health care and human services - which she must surely know come from the US government. It's arguable that she was just as uninformed as those Americans (generally thought to be Tea Partiers) who warned politicians to "keep your government hands off my Medicare."

Holding two mutually exclusive positions is the very definition of incoherent political opinions.

But ultimately Shahadi argues that Chang's self-immolation was performance art. He concludes his paper:
There is no question that Kathy Change's suicide was a grandiose act. However, it was also a performance strategy that was carefully chosen and thoughtfully employed. This strategy, the performance of her absence, is a gesture that persists in the potentially infinite instances of repeat inherent in digital media. In the end, then, we are left with the unsettling realization that Kathy Change was right, if the State is an abstraction then perhaps the best way to resist an abstraction is to become one.
The State was not such an abstraction to Chang - she bemoaned Americans being denied health care and human services from that same "abstraction." And in both Shahadi's paper and elsewhere it is noted that Chang had attempted suicide on several previous occasions, and discovered her mother's body after her mother committed suicide. 

Shahadi also mentions Chang had asked her father for help in getting dental work, and her father denied her. According to Anita King, whom Shahadi quotes pretty extensively in his paper, Chang was being supported by her boyfriend who was "too cheap" to pay for the dental care. According to King, Chang had also supported herself on occasion as a prostitute. Chang was 46 when she committed suicide - perhaps she realized that soon she would no longer be able to rely on any men for support.

Chang's cause was too vague and incoherent to ever lead to any kind of social change. But what Chang did succeed in doing was being remembered. It's a pretty safe bet that the New York Times would not be talking about the crazy 65 year old woman dancing and shouting in front of the University of Pennsylvania peace sign. Her suicide led to her mattering to the world, even if it had to be post-death.

While reading Shahadi's paper, I could not help but think of this Warner Brothers cartoon "Show Biz Bugs" which is described on Wikipedia:
...In a final attempt to impress the audience, Daffy performs a deadly stunt (which he refers as "an act that no other performer has dared to execute!"), by drinking some gasoline, some nitroglycerin, some gunpowder, and some Uranium-238, "shake well," and swallowing a lit match ("Girls, you better hold onto your boyfriends!"), causing him to explode. The audience loves the performance, but Daffy (now a transparent ghost and ascending to heaven) "can only do it once."