4/19 Lecture, Martin Manalansan: "Travels of Disaffection:
Labor, Affect, and Migration"
Guest Writer: Chase Dimock

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

posted under , , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[On April 19, 2010 the Unit for Criticism hosted "Travels of Disaffection: Labor, Affect, and Migration," a lecture by Martin Manalansan, associate professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies. Siobhan Somerville, associate professor of English and Gender & Women's Studies, responded.]

Paper Dolls and The Global Heart Transplant: A Few Reflections on Martin Manalansan’s “Travels of Disaffection: Labor, Affect, and Migration”

Written by Chase Dimock (Comparative & World Literature)

Manalansan injected his lecture for the Unit for Criticism with the tone of an intervention into the increasingly heteronormative perspective of recent scholarly work published on gender and migration. Specifically, he questioned the “chain of care” paradigm, which he defines as
A linear concatenation of bodies and feelings propelled by the migration of Third World women to the First World. Third World women are torn away from their biological families and forced to leave their children in the care of poorer women in the homeland, to take care of the progeny of modern working mothers of the first world.

In their 2003 book Global Woman, Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild argue that this chain of care results in a “global heart transplant,” where the domestic labor of these third world women is uprooted from their native land and relocated in the first world where their employment as care workers takes on the function of surrogate or supplementary mothers, wives, daughters and other affective, pseudo-familial roles.

Manalansan placed this unquestioned equation of care work with the affective assumptions of femininity under a queer critique, speculating, “What if we include such queer creatures as gay men, single and married women with no "maternal instinct," and transgendered persons into the mix? How can we queer this particular migratory diaspora without dismissing the struggles of some of its constituents?”

In search of an alternative framework for conceptualizing this “chain of care,” Manalansan pointed toward Tomer Heymann’s 2005 documentary Paper Dolls. Filmed originally as a 6-part program for Israeli television and then distilled into a feature-length documentary for the film festival circuit, Paper Dolls follows the life and labor of five transgender migrant workers from the Philippines who, by day, work as caregivers for elderly Orthodox Jewish men and, by night, perform drag shows in a troupe known as Paper Dolls. In his analysis, Manalansan focused specifically on the contrasting personalities of two laborers: Sally, who exhibits the expected "feminine" traits of a care giver--maternalism, geniality and an emotional bond with her client--and Jan, whose more "masculine" appearance and manner suggest a lack of emotional attachment to her client.

Siobhan Somerville and Martin Manalansan

What I found most interesting about Manalansan’s analytical approach toward the film was the importance he placed in the audience’s reception of the documentary. Manalansan organized a focus group of Filipinos in both New York and Manila and recorded how they reacted to the starkly contrasting figures of Sally and Jan. The focus group identified Sally as an affirmation of the naturally caring Filipino disposition, describing her as a Bakla man with a female heart. Manalansan accounts for this interpretation based on the profound investment that Filipino culture has in the image of the Filipina woman as an embodiment of care and nurture. This investment extends to the Filipino government that has turned the migrant Filipino careworker into a global ambassador of Filipino values and culture, mandating that all care workers complete a level of training before they work in a foreign nation.

In opposition to Sally, the focus group members found Jan to be disingenuous and unfriendly, questioning why he would go into the field of care work if he found no joy in it. Yet, members of the focus groups also pointed out that Jan exhibited a high level of skill and professionalism and defended his right to keep his job based on these merits.

Manalansan isolates Jan as an embodiment of “disaffection,” a perpetual emotional distance from his work which allows him both to perform his work at a high level of skill and to cope with the isolation of being a migrant worker functioning under government prescriptions that mandate specific conduct from a foreign labor force. Were either Sally or Jan to be fired by their client, they would be deported from Israel in spite of the productive labor they invested or any personal or professional bonds and identities they had forged in the process.

Thus, Manalansan put forth disaffection both as a way of 1) questioning the presumed affective nature of care work and 2) exploring how the forces of global capitalism and state power force migrant laborers, who are barred from full integration into the state, to disidentify with their migratory setting and cultivate a detached care for the self.

I was most struck by the pronounced masculine and feminine encoding of the “domestic” versus the “professional” which attempts to navigate the liminal space between the public and the private sphere that care workers inhabit. Although Sally’s “feminine” disposition toward her work better embodies the cultural ideal of the care worker, the affective bond she exhibits with her client tends to obscure the fact that she is a paid laborer and not the “adopted daughter” that we are inclined to read her as.

Conversely, Jan’s more “masculine” demeanor demystifies the sentimental interpretation of the relationship between pure laborer and client reinscribing the latter as professionalism. Jan’s lack of “domestic joy” reminds the viewer that although care workers labor in someone’s home, they are paid employees and should be entitled to the full array of labor rights regardless of how happy or affectionate they appear to be. Historically, domestic workers have been on the bottom end of advancements in labor rights. For example, Angela Davis argues that African-American women benefited less from the implementation of labor laws in the 20th century because these laws only recognized labor in the public sphere of private corporations and ignored the fact that a large proportion of the labor force worked in private homes and, thus, were presumed to inhabit the domestic sphere. Because they performed gendered labor seen as a supplement of a woman’s domestic role, they were relegated to the vicissitudes and abuses of patriarchal control over the domestic sphere.

Jan and Sally’s elderly clients do not fully embody the typical image of patriarchal control over the private sphere because of their infirmed state. Instead, the Israeli government inhabits this patriarchal position, enforcing certain norms of care and thus attempting to establish a uniform relationship between careworker and care recipient; a contractual relation enforced by government and enacted in a private home. With this in mind, I wonder how Manalansan’s queering of the chain of care, which focuses mostly on the queerness of the providers of care, may also extend to a queering of the recipient of care. The two elderly men depicted in Manalansan’s presentation are both alone, inhabiting a space outside the heteronormative nuclear family. Whether they have outlived their wives and lost contact with their next of kin or never decided to have a family, their elderly and infirm state has placed them in a queer position in which they inhabit the solitude of an atomized individual, but lack the requisite ability to take care of themselves which we typically assume of individuality.

These men rely upon the state to provide migrant labor in order to fill roles that the heteronormative family structure failed to fill (i.e., retirement plan of having one’s children care for you). The state intervenes to supplement the absent heteronormative family with pseudo-familial care performed to the state’s specifications. Just as Sally, Jan, and the other migrant care workers feel the constant presence of governmental standards influence their professional and personal identities, so too have the identities of their clients been shaped by the enforced norms of the Israeli welfare state.


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