Snake Oil: Taraneh Fazeli, Critical Writing Fellow, Core Program

by Michael Bise May 9, 2016

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875

I was born with a genetic heart disease called Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy. It’s a disorder of the heart muscle that causes it to thicken over time. Eventually the heart becomes too inflexible to pump enough blood to supply the body. I’ve spent a large part of my life in waiting rooms, hospital beds and government healthcare offices due to this genetic expression disorder. It occurs prior even to those DNA markers that determine sexuality. Before I was male or female, I was sick. I had my first open-heart surgery when I was 17 years old and a heart transplant four years ago at the age of 35. If I understand nothing else, I understand illness.

So it was with a predisposition toward sympathy that I opened the current catalog for the Core exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to read first-year Core Residency critical writing fellow Taraneh Fazeli’s essay Notes for Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying, in Conversation with the Canaries. I would like to say that this young writer, curator, Cooper Union and CUNY graduate finds an intriguing road into the thorny thicket of illness and art. Unfortunately, I cannot. In her essay, Fazeli reveals herself to be yet another member of the growing (and celebrated) New Age cult of mysticism, fear and weakness that feels more and more like a canary in the coal mine for the onset of a new intellectual Middle Ages.

Fazeli’s Notes is a theoretical justification for a series of projects and exhibitions she plans to organize during her residency. Her primary thesis is that the “leaky and porous body in states of debility and disability” is “potentially resistive to capitalism and other forms of oppression.” She writes that disabled and debilitated bodies “are simply not as valuable to capitalism, which assesses human bodies by their ability to labor.”

This is ridiculous. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most lucrative industries in the United States. The U.S. is the only industrial country that does not, by law, allow the government to negotiate drug prices. Genuinely sick people, who require chronic doses of often extremely expensive medication, are held hostage to only slightly less expensive insurance premiums in order to buy into the inefficient and often corrupt insurance industry. Those sick people who find a way to pay are the least resistant consumers in the capitalist healthcare industry. Those people who cannot pay suffer and die well before the national median lifespan. The merits and pitfalls of capitalism aside, these facts cast rational shade on Frazeli’s core thesis.

Fazeli’s theories are intellectually lazy and sometimes disingenuous. Take the following statement: “Dragging on, circling back, with no regard for the stricture of the work week or compulsory ablebodiness, sick time is an amalgam of queer and crip [a political appropriation of the word ‘cripple’] times. Sick time is non-compliant.” Chronic illness (when it isn’t hypochondria) often demands strict compliance. For a full year before my heart transplant I was only able to drink 12 – 16 ounces of water a day because my heart was unable to move fluid through my body and water had begun to settle in my lungs. I was required to be at my most compliant when my body was its weakest. In order for my name to be added to the transplant list, I had to sign a legal compliance document stating that if I disregarded my doctors’ orders I would be removed from the list. (You might not be surprised to know that many people continue to smoke and drink after they’e been added to the list. Sick people are just as stupid as healthy people.) Fazeli’s valorization of illness and debilitation as a tool for economic revolution is an example of the kind of fuzzy thinking that too often goes unchallenged in the art world.

In another bid to use the suffering of sick people to theoretically combat capitalism Fazeli writes that because chronic illness “refuses a fantasy of normalcy” and “demands care that exceeds that which the nuclear family unit can provide” it “hints at how we might begin to tell capitalism to back off and keep its hands to itself… .” An education at Cooper Union and CUNY seems to have allowed Fazeli to envision a global economic order as a triggering, ass-grabbing frat boy. When my wife and I bought our house we learned that the foreclosed house down the street had once belonged to a retired man and his wife. When he was diagnosed with cancer his treatment costs were so great they were unable to continue paying their mortgage. They lost the house. He died anyway. Capitalism not only had its hands all over him, it had its fist up his ass.

Elsewhere in the essay, Fazeli quotes Foucault’s idea of the “medical gaze” developed in his book The Birth of the Clinic. Foucault’s idea of the medical gaze is one in which the patient’s body is viewed in isolation from his mind and identity, supposedly dehumanizing him. This is totally true and completely necessary. The surgeon who cut my heart out didn’t need to know I’m a Manet-loving Marxist. He needed to know how to stop the massive bleeding that almost killed me. Doctors don’t need to have a particularly holistic view of the human being in order to treat disease. They need to be razor-sharp, monster practitioners within a narrow field of expertise. This is why I have a team of doctors and receive a bill from each of them.

Throughout the essay, Fazeli throws around the kinds of loose, inaccurate phrases we have become so used to seeing we hardly think to question anymore. Take as an example, “the bifurcation of body and mind in Western bio-medicine.” What is Western bio-medicine? A huge percentage of doctors, including my two chief cardiologists, come from countries that span the far reaches of the globe. Science is the same in Mumbai as it is in Houston (or at least it should be). Is influenza Western? Is there an Eastern way to transplant a heart? There may be ancient herbal remedies for infections, but I’ll take the Z-Pak, thanks. And I submit that most people from any culture would make the same choice if they had it. In Houston, one day a nurse from the Phillippines told me there was a Saudi general recovering from a lung transplant he paid for in cash in the Methodist penthouse (yes, hospitals have penthouses).The point should not be to question Western bio-medicine, but to think about ways to make its enormous benefits available to more people.

It would be unfair if I didn’t also note that after many years of frustrating treatment Frazeli writes that she was herself diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune disorders are no joke. After five years of a swollen face, bright red hives and emotional stress the eldest of my two sisters was finally diagnosed with Thyroid Autoantibody Disorder. The unfortunate truth is that the human immune system is about as well understood as the Higgs-Boson particle. I sympathize and, in fact, I empathize with Fazeli in the suffering of her illness. It is her illness that leads us to the final stop in her patchwork of trendy theories: The Canaries.

We Are the Canaries is a goofy mix of art collective and autoimmune disorder support group that Fazeli characterizes as “an informal support coven.” They brand themselves as the canaries in the coal mine for a host of as-yet-undiagnosed environmental diseases. I also believe that the future holds many legitimate new and undiscovered ailments and disorders. After having looked through their website my youngest sister (who shares my heart disease and is a Type 1 diabetic) texted me that she got “the impression it’s a place for people (likely hypochondriacs) to discuss their ailments or believed ailments in a more artistic manner rather than some medical setting.” Tabs on the website link to Paleo cookbooks, Yoga instruction and yes, shamanic guidance. Fazeli, in an email reproduced in her essay, invited other “Canaries” to submit ‘zines and broadsheet posters for a book she is planning to produce as part of her Core residency. All of this is fine, I guess. I’ve seen plenty of crazy patients and bad agit-prop art in my day. I also crumbled briefly into mysticism after a blood clot slammed into my optic nerve and destroyed a good deal of my vision. The problem comes when you realize the level of institutional art support for this kind of silliness.

Not only is Fazeli a critical writing fellow at a prestigious residency supported by the MFAH, she has participated in the Art & Law Residency Program at Fordham Law School. Her work at the New Museum included serving as co-organizer of the postgraduate R&D Seminars; editor of Six Degrees; and co-organizer of the 2015 R&D SPECULATION season. She was a contributing editor to Triple Canopy and managing director of e-flux, where she oversaw publications such as art-agenda. In 2015 she co-taught the thesis project course at City College’s Digital and Interdisciplinary Art Practice MFA program and is a member of Pedagogy Group, a collective of socially engaged art educators.” That’s a lot of pedagogy.

These kinds of irrational theories are difficult to assail because, like many other contemporary critical art writers, Fazeli shields her postmodern patchwork of pseudo-religious ideas behind the designation “queer theory.” In recent years the term “queer” seems to have been emptied of much its original radical, sweaty and sexy activist meaning and is often used as insurance against valid criticisms of silly ideas by opening critique itself to accusations of bigotry. Whatever disabled or sexually or racially or culturally ambiguous a creature we humans surely can be, we don’t need to let go of our greatest human strength: the ability to improve our existence by reaching not for fantasies but for truth.

Fazeli will likely go on to rewrite the intellectual DNA of hundreds of impressionable young thinkers. And she is just one of a small army of artists and writers who are currently being rewarded with careers and educational authority for crippling culture and opening the door to even more of the authoritarian control they decry. Fazeli is simply wrong about how illness works. It’s not empowering. I’ve learned from it only after getting well. If I was still as sick as I was when the only thing keeping me alive was a pump that pushed medication directly into the atriums of my heart, I wouldn’t be writing, making art or thinking about capitalism. It is dangerous to assert that sickness, weakness and passivity can be a form of resistance. That logic leads to willful slavery.


Ed. note: On May 26, Taraneh Fazeli supplied Glasstire with this link to her essay. (This is the same day it appeared in Temporary Art Review, “…partially in response to Michael Bise’s review.”) 


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Chris May 9, 2016 - 10:35

Where can I read Taraneh Fazeli’s essay?

Christina Rees May 9, 2016 - 11:44

Copies are available at the Core show, and in the MFAH library, and possibly at the MFAH bookstore.

Joanie May 9, 2016 - 12:34

Great Crit. Glad to see it here.

David May 10, 2016 - 13:37

Wow. I’d almost forgotten what real criticism looked like. Keep it up.

J + R May 11, 2016 - 10:33

In his review, Snake Oil: Taraneh Fazeli, Critical Writing Fellow, Core Program, Michael Bise trades his heart condition as currency to dismiss any other opinion or perspective on illness, more specifically Tareneh Fazeli’s. The review is a manipulative ploy masquerading as criticism. Bise’s experience with the industrial medical, pharmaceutical and insurance triangle are positioned as an expertise on chronic illness writ large, rather seen as a point of intersection, alliance or confluence with Fazeli, who also has a chronic illness. In combination with his recent review of MPA’s exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, Bise’s perspective belies a deep misogyny and a profound disdain for anything that hints at religion, mysticism, New Age, spiritual, or any alternatives to Western medicine, empirical methods, and so-called “reason and rationality.” Caught up in his own personal experiences, albeit both his experience of illness and religion sound deeply traumatic, Bise misinterpreted and misses the point of Fazeli’s essay, in some cases arguing the same points! He makes this review personal by using her name in the title instead of the essay’s name and by glossing over the essay entirely save for five excerpted phrases, decontextualized from a larger network of thoughts, interspersed into a rampage through his own biography.

First, Bise calls Fazeli’s statement that “one thing that unites disabled people with those in fluctuating states of debility is that their bodies are simply not as valuable to capitalism, which assesses human bodies by their ability to labor,” “ridiculous.” (Note, I’m citing from Fazeli’s essay, not Bise’s quotation of Fazeli’s essay). He goes on to defend this claim by pointing to the fact that sick people’s illnesses force them to rely on outrageously expensive medicine, insurance, and care that make them unable to resist these forms of exploitation because they depend on these things to survive. He even acknowledges “those people who cannot pay suffer and die well before the national median lifespan.” But he uses these facts to attack Fazeli’s argument rather than the system she is critiquing, not understanding that they are making the same point in different ways. Fazeli is saying capitalism confronts many sick or disabled people with their own value-less-ness by making them choose between their lives and care that they can’t afford. Fazeli’s point certainly doesn’t suggest that value isn’t extracted from sick and disabled people or that people who are deemed less valuable are not profitable sources of revenue for the insurance, medical, and pharmaceutical industries. She is arguing that sick and disabled people’s lives are devalued to the point that some are institutionally targeted for death. Some people are worth caring for (those who can afford to pay); others are not. People who are less valuable to capitalism are faced with the choice to either contribute productively or be treated as surplus, as expendable.

Bise only deals with one part of Fazeli’s argument, ignoring her points about labor, despite his stated alliance with Marxism. Sick and disabled people are often barred either by structural obstacles to participating in the labor force (the ability to arrive to work on time or maintain regular working hours, uninterrupted by doctor’s visits, for example), which is to say, unable to participate in the cycles of exploitation that lead to some people getting sick or disabled in the first place. Think Erin Brockovich as a worst case scenario that is all too real in a system that often causes the conditions it charges exorbitant prices to correct. Another example: Restless leg, caused by sitting in desk chairs too long, is now a syndrome with a corresponding pill that the medical system can charge for so that you can sit (and work) longer periods of time so that you can pay for your Restless Leg Syndrome pill, ad infinitum. … Inside the system of exploitation Fazeli is drawing attention to (what Bise excerpts), a person with a sick body often only has two choices under capitalism: get well and back to work or find a way to pay for their condition.

It’s all the more outrageous, then, that Bise later calls The Canaries’s position of resistance toward the ways their bodies are managed within the medical industrial complex a form of “voluntary slavery” and “willful servitude.” Fazeli is suggesting that sick people not only have many reasons but also tools for resisting their exploitation. The bottom line logic of the medical industrial complex is that sick bodies are more profitable when they’re chronically sick and dependent on forms of expensive (and possibly life-threatening) care. Fazeli posits an alternative. Instead of being dependent on a system she poses being interdependent on each other as means of raising each other up, politically, spiritually and physically. Citing her essay, “The central question of Sick Time will be: how do we envision ways to care for ourselves and others in a manner which eschews placement of guilt on the sick individual and avoids pathologizing non-normative bodies or behaviors, thereby disavowing the role of environmental factors, economic inequality, and systemic violence’s traumatic impact? (Note the emphasis on we, i.e. mutual aid, a community of support, indebtedness.)” In formulating communities of sick people, she advocates for exchanging experiences, depending on one another, and trying to get well together instead of apart in stoic solitude. The Canaries are one among many groups of sick and disabled people in general and artists in particular, who resist the logics of the medical industrial complex that teaches sick people that getting better means becoming independent again. They work through their interdependence with others, with their environment, with their medication, vitamins, and alternative therapies, with canes and wheelchairs and ramps and elevators and communication devices and interpreters.

In response to Bise’s sister’s opinion that The Canaries project is “a place for people (likely hypochondriacs) to discuss their ailments or believed ailments in a more artistic manner rather than some medical setting.” Such a statement, despite being delivered by a woman, drips of misogyny and a long history of Western medicine calling women hypochondriacs and hysterics, and an even longer history of calling women witches (see Bise’s review of MPA where he dismissed the work whole-heartedly as “ a witchy polytheistic version of [Minimalism with] the same authoritarian impulse to control people’s thoughts and lives.”) The illnesses that befall women, especially those with no clear cause, are often perpetuated as psychiatric, psychosomatic and self-generated, a position that the medical and psychiatric gaze generates by treating bodies as objects (the reason Fazeli cites Foucault) and often worsened when entangled within systems of power that dismiss and discount one’s position as “ridiculous” and “hysteric” while also withholding the mechanism for a counter argument, a method Bise employs in this review. (How can Fazeli or MPA respond to Bise’s attack without being called butt-hurt?) A point that The Canaries often bring up is that psychosomatic is always used negatively despite the fact that it points to the intelligence of the body to respond to the mind’s condition and vice versa. The other point Bise misses: Fazeli positions the community supporting an ill person as being integral to both healing and well-being, and fails to acknowledge how his own family might fulfill such a role while citing his family directly. In doing so, he perpetuates American ideals of the individual as an agent who is able to be completely responsible and to control all aspects of his destiny, dismissing Fazeli’s point about the role love, care and companionship play in an interconnected and interdependent network of people. He suggests instead what sick people need are “razor-sharp, monster practitioners within a narrow field of expertise,” in a continued devaluation of the unpaid emotional labor of family, friends, and loved ones.

Bise argues that “In recent years the term ‘queer’ seems to have been emptied of much its original radical, sweaty and sexy activist meaning and is often used as insurance against valid criticisms of silly ideas by opening critique itself to accusations of bigotry.” While it is true that some aspects of queerness have been co-opted by capitalism (aesthetic and cultural production), and others by conservative groups (activist methods), and that some can be quick to use queerness as a defense against positions that are more nuanced than bigotry (which implies a simple-minded ignorance).
Bise also seems to be making a defense for bigotry from those who are “too sensitive.” He never seems to consider what queer meant in this nostalgic “radical, sweaty, sexy” past or what it may currently mean. He especially does not consider why Fazeli calls her project “queer.”

Queerness, not queer theory, but being queer is an experience of the world that departs from dominant categories, narratives, and structures that model what it is to be a valuable, productive member of the existing social order. Queerness often coincides with being oppressed, devalued, not taken seriously and not cared for. But it is also an experience of the world that fosters forms of improvisation through these conditions. For example, ideas of family are queered by reorienting value around chosen care collectives. Queerness is a lived, somatic, historical resource for reading the world and especially the conditions with which one lives. It is a tool for understanding that ontological (the nature of being and reality), epistemological (how we come to know that being and reality), and hermeneutic (how we interpret being and reality) happen in the wrong order: queerness precedes straightness, dependency precedes independence. The imposition of a different (straight) kind of sequence, the dominant temporality, is the result of violence and requires continued, renewed violence to keep time straight. Such violence includes silencing those that challenge this order and dismisses and calls dangerous those who threaten to disrupt this narrative, as Bise does in this essay and others.

There is, of course, a very real way in which I’m sure Bise has experienced queerness as someone who has had a life-threatening illness. It’s fascinating that Bise explains that his genetic disorder “occurs prior even to those DNA markers that determine sexuality.” Already signaling that this is a critique about gender and illness, and (perhaps unintentionally) destabilizing a binary idea of gender, he explains early on, “Before I was male or female, I was sick.” However, he seems aggressive and actively determined to use this priority to stage an attack on thinking that would try to imagine what the structural entanglements are between illness and queerness. Bise actively identifies the lived conditions of chronic illness while saying he has one. He was sick and now is cured, and thinks it is sick is to be sick. He does not consider what is powerful about sick people identifying as disabled. In doing so he abandons his role as a critic, and a responsibility to critically engage, instead misunderstanding his position as one where he criticizes.

Throughout the review, Bise “sympathizes” with Fazeli (who wants sympathy?–perhaps Mr. Bise) and it is this condescension that makes him unable to forge an alliance with alternative methodologies and perspectives that may position him as empowered rather than a victim of his body. As such, a strong smell of the underdog lingers here, as does the smell of sour grapes revealed by his dismissal of New York, “pedagogy” and Fazeli’s credentials. Ultimately, Bise asks others to be responsible for the chip on his shoulder. Michael Bise, you are the Donald Trump of Texas art writing; disenfranchised by things you don’t understand and too angry to see beyond yourself, you confuse bullying for a strong point of view. Might I suggest that you are not equipped to critique this essay, not because you do not understand the illness, but because you are operating according to the logic of the system the essay seeks to break down? In this case, and many others articulated in your writing, it’s not us, it’s you.

R + J May 11, 2016 - 16:44

“These kinds of irrational theories are difficult to assail because, like many other contemporary critical art writers, Fazeli shields her postmodern patchwork of pseudo-religious ideas behind the designation “queer theory.” In recent years the term “queer” seems to have been emptied of much its original radical, sweaty and sexy activist meaning and is often used as insurance against valid criticisms of silly ideas by opening critique itself to accusations of bigotry. ”

Didn’t you just kind of call him a misogynist? … and compared him to Trump, who is the poster boy for bigotry right now from the left? Your soap box is slippery.

Robert Boyd May 11, 2016 - 10:40

Good one.

John Berger called such writing “mystification”.

Andy Campbell May 11, 2016 - 15:47

I’ve just read J + R’s critique, and some of the points I’m covering here are more eloquently expressed in their response:

As a fellow critic (both to Michael Bise by profession, and to Taraneh Fazeli as a fellow Core resident) I’m usually loathe to comment publicly on other critics’ writings, but the latest screed from Michael Bise cannot stand as it is. I see this as an extension of the kinds of support networks and systems that Fazeli writes about in her essay. I have to admit, first, though, that my frustration with Bise’s writings have been building for some time. Part of my initial frustration with this “review” was the unthinking language used to describe Fazeli’s essay and influence–twice insinuating she’s a hypochondriac (!!), and claiming she’s “crippling culture” (!!!!) and “rewrit[ing] the intellectual DNA of hundreds of impressionable young thinkers” is grossly overstating the case, inelegantly rhyming across generations with the sentiments of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who spoke about a “whole sorry mess of twisted, warped thinkers” as “[…] enemies within.” (e.g. commies and homos). But upon reflection, I think the root of my frustration stems from the fact that Bise often points to his radical cred, declaring himself a Marxist in this article (railing, rightly, in part, against economic inequality and access to treatment) for example, even though he time and time again makes clear his investment in normalizing (old-guard) power structures, which are positioned by him as a necessary part of criticism [if you want other models I suggest reading Rita Felski’s new-ish book, The Limits of Critique]. In short, a “this is for your own good” attitude pervades Bise’s writings for Glasstire.

Here’s one example: near the end of his recent piece about schoolyard competitions drawing Wolverine and (big-dicked) ninjas (I wonder what the girls were drawing) Bise states, “Demolishing corrupt and outdated social norms is easier than identifying those that are necessary to keep free and open societies intact. The corrosive acid of irony is absolutely necessary (and incredibly satisfying) in order to dissolve the calcifications of power but people can’t live without the glue of that same power and authority.” That’s a big but! I’d bet there are a lot of subjects (feminists, queers, transfolks, people of color, and disability activists) who would disagree with that predicate. When we hear that certain power structures are necessary (or that people can’t live without them), we should first wonder *who* is doing the calculus of what’s the “glue” in this situation and what’s not.

Here’s another: in his recent review of MPA’s exhibition at the CAMH, Bise ignores anything the work might have to say about settler-colonialism, surveying, geography, and photography (all germane topics to the exhibition), and focuses instead on how “far into Neverland so many young leftist artists have drifted.” [an aside: Bise also calls Fazeli “young” in this article, too, even though she’s probably closer to being his contemporary age-wise. If forced to explain this positioning, which I find difficult to justify editorially, I can only conjecture that it seems easier to write someone off who is dubbed young and thus naive (???) rather than one who is perceived to be an intellectual equal. Bise’s flippant dismissal is intellectually pauce, flattening and discounting the *decades* of experience MPA and Fazeli have in making art, exhibitions, and programs combined.] Bise prefers, instead, to manufacture an opportunity to decry what he perceives as a kind of New Age-ism running rampant through the art world. It’s a favorite topic of his, it seems, as his broad dismissal of some recent philosophical wanderings around the concept of the anthropocene is similarly dippy.

But let’s focus on this piece, which is a truly stunning display of willful misreading and a kind of zero sum weaponization of Bise’s personal medical history. Much of his criticism is founded, it seems, on a pretty limited notion of what medicine and healthcare is, or can be. Bise writes, “Doctors don’t need to have a particularly holistic view of the human being in order to treat disease. They need to be razor-sharp, monster practitioners within a narrow field of expertise.” That’s one way of thinking about it–but what about PCP’s, family doctors, hospice workers, and nurses–all of whom might not fit the definition of the uber-aggressive “monster practitioners” of narrow specialties? What about family members, friends, and other “non-specialists” who end up doing emotional, mental, and physical heavy-lifting for the infirm? Furthermore, Bise confuses the fact that there are Western doctors of every race and nationality with his desire to wish away anything that doesn’t look like medicine as he’s known and experienced it. Even at face-value, it’s a false dichotomy that Bise builds, as pharmacology is a kind of herbology, albeit dressed in the authoritative attire of specialized glassware and the scientific method. That’s an oversimplification, I know, but let me put it this way: I’ve never been the person who goes to a health grocer to purchase willow bark extract, I’ll happily pop an Aspirin instead. But I also know, and respect, that the more “modern” drug was derived from the compounds in the former. I’m a fairly compliant and normative medical citizen in that way (preferring Aspirin over willow bark extract), and probably a lot like Bise in that way, too. But I suppose where Bise and I differ is that I don’t pretend that my own personal preferences and ambulations through tricky medical systems are the only, or necessarily morally superior, ones. When a friend purchases willow bark extract, I don’t slam her for it, because I try to keep in mind what my queer and feminist foremothers taught me: friends let friends purchase willow bark extract because… it’s their fucking body!

Dig deeper: It doesn’t occur to Bise that the logic of colonialism extends to medicine and science (in fact, it’s one of the places that colonialism’s all-encompassing discursive model is most apparent). The science of defining what a body is, how it should be managed, which bodies get treated in what ways, and the relationship between the body and mind emerges from, and is haunted by, the extended legacies of colonialism–specifically by the conquests of the West over the East and South. One of the strongest ways in which colonialism’s logics are still with us is its excoriations of other ways of living in, conceiving of, and treating bodies. Claiming that these methods of treatment and care are not only invalid but don’t exist (or if they no longer exist, it’s because they were logically meant to perish), smacks of an assuredness that I openly refute. Bise perfectly models (I’m hoping unbeknownst to him) settler-colonialist logic in this sentence: “The point should not be to question Western bio-medicine, but to think about ways to make its enormous benefits available to more people.” Strange to me is that Bise believes “Western bio-medicine,”–a contellated array of power, capital, resources and people that is bound to be complex in both application and scope–beyond reproach.

Turning away from Bise’s fairly limited notion of medicine, its application, and its embedded histories–there are other anxieties, only barely masked, that require redress. Claiming that a man who lost his house and died from cancer was essentially “fisted” by capitalism rings a bit–how do the old queens say it?– funny. In an essay that later excoriates “queer” theory as “emptied of much its original radical, sweaty and sexy activist meaning […],” one that is “often used as insurance against valid criticisms of silly ideas by opening critique itself to accusations of bigotry,” Bise shows himself to be not only a poor reader of queer theory, but in need of an editor willing to check his sublimations. Let me be clear: I’m not accusing Bise of bigotry, just of the laziness that he is supposedly clocking Fazeli for. Either he is blithely unaware that fisting is a thing that queers sometimes do for pleasure, in which case, I’ve got a couple magazines he can borrow, or he’s choosing his metaphors to work at cross-purposes. My conception of queer theory is markedly different than Bise–I’ve never used queer theory as a shield, rather as a way to continually think the world otherwise. If queer theory worked the way Bise thinks it does then it would have already protected us from his solipsistic criticism (fail); and after, if I’m following his understanding of what queerness is all about correctly, we could just get back to our sexy sweating. That queer theory could do anything else, such as propose new formulations of what it might mean to be human, suggest ways of conceptualizing time, the body, and how we ethically care for ourselves and each other, is not even on Bise’s radar. One of the things that Fazeli’s essay does so well is think *with* queer theory, making it as useful to the person on the dance-floor as to the person in a hospital bed. It’s this idea of theory that I’d rather invest in; as a useful tool in doing, saying, and organizing.

My other reason for writing so much here (thanks for reading so far!), is that it disheartens me that the current comments from Glasstire readers on this article position its readership as only too happy to lap up anything that confirms their suspicion that a complex word or thought is just what this headline exclaims it is – snake oil! (Or that a thought strongly expressed is tantamount to criticism). That’s too easy; and even Bise should recognize that he’s pandering. I’d respectfully suggest that Glasstire readers check their pitchforks at the door… because “Stick it to those pretentious academics who use alienating big words!” in this context also means “Stick it to those queers and people of color who are talking about disability and access, and forming a support group that insists on the deep interrelationship between art and life.” But Bise’s critique is a little more insidious in what it does than what it says, because it offers a roadmap for people who would rather just *not* hear from people of color, queers, and disabled folks, to dismiss their experiences out of pocket.

Finally, if the bar for backing up and buttressing one’s criticism is a text message from one’s sister, we’re in serious trouble.

The question I have: is there yet hope, or should I just give up on Michael Bise ever producing a review that doesn’t sound like a throaty yell for these goddamn “young” kids to get off his fucking art lawn? I mean, the guy gave a tepid thumbs up to the legitimately terrible “High Society” exhibition currently up at the MFAH. Face meet palm. The worst, though, is that Bise thinks he’s performing the role of the arbiter of truly, politically radical thought, but instead he’s pushing a form of pragmatism that reads an awful lot like a willing complicity with power structures.

Perhaps Bise would have more fun reviewing the Mark Flood show. At the very least, his mansplaining misanthropy would be put into its proper context.

Chuck May 12, 2016 - 09:38

That was too long but I read it anyway. Thanks to you and J+R for bringing up all the good points, glad to learn from it.

Rainey Knudson May 15, 2016 - 02:32

It’s always gratifying to see someone use their real name on a comment, particularly one that isn’t numbingly tedious to read.

seth May 11, 2016 - 16:32

Who is this Capitalism person? He seems like a real bummer. Really though, “capitalism” has been defined and redefined a million different ways. At this point it doesn’t mean anything anymore. So if everyone stops pretending they are expert economic theorists, this conversation would be much easier. Take that word out of the equation… Michael is still right about this.

Britt May 12, 2016 - 13:05

This is an op-ed article written for a regional arts website. Op-ed means it’s an opinion piece. Why are we holding Michael to critic standards when this is an article where he can freely express his opinion without need for justification or support? Personally, I enjoyed reading the perspective of another person with chronic illness. I am eager to read Fazeli’s piece now as well. Did this article spark that interest in Fazeli’s perspective? Yes. I would not be aware of Fazeli’s writing at all without this contending opinion. I think that means the article did its job. Thanks Michael!

Constantina September 8, 2018 - 13:15

The gallery that represents Michael Bise states that: “He regularly contributes criticism and reviews for the online art journal Glasstire.” A person who REGULARLY writes CRITICISM for an ART journal AND has this officially listed in their bio by the gallery that represents them is fairly likely to be considered at the very least an amateur critic—which I hope may help to answer your question: “why are we holding Michael to critic standards…”

Given that Mr. Bise is indeed a critic of sorts and is writing a critical review of someone’s work here in the Op-Ed section under the same name used for his criticism tagged as reviews, it seems more than fair to hold him to “critic standards”. And anyway I don’t know about you, Britt, but the Texans I know tend to hold even non-critics who are freely voicing their opinions to basic standards too. 🙂

What you deem a “regional arts website” in fact remains a website and the internet can (and sometimes even does) travel beyond the borders of Texas. Critics and non-critics alike may of course express their opinions but other critics and non-critics alike may in response also express theirs. It seems you simply are saying something along the lines of “hey he’s just saying his opinion in our living room—it’s just his opinion and it’s just our living room—it’s our opinion room; play nice!” But please remember this is not just your living room—a lot of other people are living in this opinion room, which means some of them may also (GASP) voice their opinions too. Some of those opinions may range from “oh thank you Michael you’re so smart and good and seriously informative too and yeah say it again louder you the best” to “ugh Michael your criticism isn’t up to snuf and this Op-Ed is bigoted”. This is, after all, the comment section of an Op-Ed.

So, “Why are we holding Michael to critic standards when this is an article where he can freely express his opinion without need for justification or support?”—Literally no one has stopped Mr. Bise’s freedom to write his own opinion in an Op-Ed, with or without justification—as evidenced by the fact that his article has been published with or without said justification and remains here today years later. A win for free speech! Now can we please start thinking about what it might be to actually say something worth this freedom? Ableism is cheap (and still free) but it certainly doesn’t make for good critique let alone art worth celebrating—but hey just my opinion!

jeanne May 12, 2016 - 18:51

two things Michael Bise mobilizes against in his own art that are/were found as hardship in his life:
1. belief
2. sickness/disability

two things Michael Bise wants to criticize in someone else’s life, specifically when that someone else finds joy in them:
1. belief
2. sickness/disability

Anybody catching a pattern here? The criticism of this piece of writing has nothing to do with art and everything to do with Michael Bise’s own corrective egotistical rage, a rage so often focused on three main groups of people—women, queers, and people of color—and now despite his own condition, also applied to sick and disabled people.

In disability community there is a name for this: ableism. And however you define your personal conditions or identity in terms of disability, functionally or politically (as many disabled people do not wish to define as disabled for fear of the societal hardship and structural oppression that such definitions often garner in addition to the functional, bodily ones), you can be ableist. Michael Bise shows that here. I respect very much Michael Bise’s respect for the doctors who he thanks for saving his life, but his disdain for the artists, activists, teachers, and caretakers here—the large majority of whom are women, queers, trans people, people of color, and all of whom are sick and disabled people is very telling. Michael Bise, your sexism, racism, and homophobia are showing, but don’t worry. Us disabled folks are happy to still care for you wherever you may fall on the temporal spectrum of life and death, whether you’re disabled, chronically ill, living with disabilities (recognized or not by science, law, and medicine) or well, able bodied, temporarily able bodied, or whatever.

But for real, chill on the art criticism, bro—you’re wayyy out of your league here. Maybe take a look at your own work and stop writing op eds. That photo your wife took of you in the hospital bed. It’s really good! She’s a good artist. Maybe use your status to help her get a show instead of using her work and care to get yourself one. The photo is great already and in color, which you seem no to like. Why you then had to trace it into graphite, I really don’t know. But keep trying! Disney may call you yet.

dixon May 13, 2016 - 01:32

every town has at least one of them, the overly educated fancy hooked up artist come art critic who just wants to complain about rationalism and the good old days where pictures were pretty and art history was all dead white men plus a few tokens. they like to pretend they’re common and clear while snottily criticizing shows they haven’t even seen (whether or not they attended them) from behind the protection of their degrees and degrees of local nepotism—yet somehow with not an ounce of the rigor they claim to so deeply value.

the result is your every so often screed against the outsider, usually constructed as a confused straw man argument against someone they perceive as lesser for one reason or another—that is in fact aimed at this terrible power of contemporary art they so desperately want to go away or include them more. “just listen to reason. stop with the romanticism!” them cry. they typically have a woe is me story of some sort, something to pity, something that is supposed to make them the underdog that rose to the challenge, worked hard, had that old fashioned kind of patience and was just oh so talented. and always a woman who loves them by their side.

but they aren’t usually the poor hard working americans they make themselves out to be. in fact they’re often just mediocre, not rich, not poor, just in the middle, maybe even proud of it. and certainly proud enough to tell all the poor and working class people them just how smart and educated they are. and oh are they so ready to give advice to us all. “don’t be weak! don’t be too strong! (read: don’t be better than me)”, they’ll say. and all of it really is nothing other than “look at me!” at the end of the day or the end of the blog.

but we see you michael bise, and we believe that artists should be seen. that’s why we’re artists, right? or is it the work? the work for sure should be seen, yes? we see you michael bise; we’ve always seen you. you’re everywhere in every town. we see you. we see your pain. and we love you. love is our gift to you should you ever choose to recognize it in yourself.

Dan Faust May 15, 2016 - 00:06

The core needs to step it’s game up. Stop defending weak ass stuff just because you’re affiliated. Keep the “everybody wins” mentally to little league; art for art sake belongs there too.

Kudos for not liking everything for once Houston Glasstire writer. (At least that’s how we read it)

There are other critics in this city, but their editors (who pay the measly check) keep it soft. Then there is the Chronicle, which might as well be paper city.

Anyway, for the most part the core program has sucked for ten years at least. The ones still straggling around Houston are getting by on a previous perception of an idea that once worked….

seth May 15, 2016 - 13:11

Thanks for saying this. Everyone mutters it under their breath when the fellows aren’t around. Who knows what it will take for it to sink in… Maybe Michael could write another piece just about that issue. I would love to read the comments after that. This has been such fun.

Bundy May 15, 2016 - 15:33

Remember where the advice is coming from.

Michael Morris May 16, 2016 - 01:10

Michael, I’ve been thinking for a while about how to respond to our exchange on your last article, but every time I wrote one, I ended up too distracted to finish it. Maybe I’ll take another stab at it now that there’s another, similar opportunity.

Because this conversation gets into some swampy territory that others in the comments above are better addressing, I’m going to focus specifically on your defenses of rationality and clear disgust with the theoretical ideas you see as irrational and dangerous.

I think the paragraph here about your heart surgeon and dehumanization best gets at what I’m suspicious of in your writing. Clearly, it was beneficial for your surgeon to be undistracted by the particularities of you as a complicated human in order to address the illness in your body. But wouldn’t you agree that this same logic of dehumanizing rationality is clearly not beneficial when projected onto how patients are dealt with by hospital administration, government bureaucracy, and across so many facets of our supposedly rational culture? Wouldn’t you agree that the reduction of people to bodies in contexts outside of the specific practice of medicine, let’s say education or criminal justice, is destructive? I’m confounded by your attempt to mobilize Foucault’s thinking against Fazeli’s critique. Arguing that this kind of rationality is helpful in the context of surgery does not support its application across all aspects of culture.

I get your desire for rigor, and your skepticism of a turn towards the mystical. Clearly some wonderful things have come from scientific and rational thinking in western culture, but you’re too flippant with regards to what are real crimes and horrors that are clear symptoms of the limits of rationality: imperialism, technological warfare, climate change, economic oppression, etc. as well as theoretical attempts to get around some of these outcomes. Perhaps it’s rational for the united states to support brutal dictators support coups in south america for american interests? Perhaps it’s rational to extract as many resources from the planet as possible for our own ends while maximizing profit? Perhaps it’s rational to drop an atomic bomb on Japan? I think it’s understandable that artists and thinkers are trying to go back to the roots of some of these problems and to acknowledge how the natural ends of rationality and technicity so broadly applied might result in horror. Maybe drawing a pentagram on the floor as an action in itself doesn’t correct climate change, ableism, or dehumanization in one stroke, but to propose a different theoretical starting point to develop a framework with different outcomes is the first step. Maybe it’s worth asking whether the New Middle Ages you’re afraid of as the outcome of a new interest in belief is necessarily related to belief as such, or whether it would be the outcome of a specific hierarchical mobilization of belief. Does a queer occult animism necessarily have the same conclusion as a patriarchal monotheism? I doubt it.

I still haven’t organized all of my thoughts here, but I imagine there will be more opportunities to think about this.

Iva May 16, 2016 - 13:22

We know a lot more about the human immune system than the Higgs-Boson particle, and that sentence undermines the argument by making it seem like any form of treatment could be equally as effective.

Pointing out flaws in the piece is fine, pointing out personal grievances with the author is not so helpful. And anyone with a comment longer than the article should consider just writing for the site – see if you can get some $ for all those words. There are some good words here!

Roseanne April 30, 2017 - 15:50

Michael. Girl:

People in glass “hospital penthouses” (yes, there are glass “hospital penthouses”) shouldn’t be throwing transplanted organs around like they’re stones.

It’s not breaking through.

I’ll take a little less Steve Bannon pedogagy in my cup of Paul Ryan “compassionate conservativism” frat boy coffee.




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