An extract from my upcoming book, The Instagram Archipelago: Race, Gender, and the Lives of Dead Fish (Zero Books, 2022)
The bikini is the only piece of clothing that ever achieved such a distinguished aesthetic that it deems the body inside it worthy of itself. The bikini is not only a piece of clothing but a standard of body. A suit shows a certain Euro-American style of formality, a kimono shows Japanese status and style, a burka shows dedication to a religious code, but the bikini deems the body inside it a bikini body.
I search “bikini” in an online bookshop and the results show something quite different to the playful, sexual meaning of the early bikini from the mid-twentieth century. The early bikini is all about the time away from work; it is the scene of a social performance conducted on beaches, on holidays, and even comes to signify the holiday itself.
The bookshop results are all about work. How to get a bikini body, how to get bikini body ready, how to prepare your bikini body. The bikini might deem you worthy of it if you work hard enough, otherwise it will reject you. You might approach the bikini in May, holding your towel up, but it turns to you in fury. It wraps itself tightly around the back of a chair and points a thin string at your embarrassed smile. “You think you are worthy of me?! Haha!” and then it leaves, rejecting you again, another year in the pre-bikini misery that so quickly becomes the post-bikini infinity of middle age.
The bikini was supposedly invented by Louis Réard and named by him after the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The USA turned the atoll into a nuclear test site in the 1940s and ’50s, evacuating its entire population.
The parallels between a type of Human called “Woman” and the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands are quite strange.
The Bikini islands are uninhabitable because of heavy nuclear testing at the beginning of the Cold War, resulting in dangerously high levels of radioactive isotopes in the water. Women, also, are understood as uninhabitable (no one understands women) because of a long history of heavy misogynist testing: burning on the pyre, drowning, not-paying, beating, raping, murdering.
The islands were chosen as the site of nuclear testing by warmongering men who ventured out to sea to perform the kill. The etymology of the islands’ name supposedly describes a German colonial appropriation of the Marshallese name Pikinni, coming from the parts “pik,” which means surface, and “Nì,” meaning coconut. The group of islands in the middle of the sea are called the surface coconut.
Men drift out on the sea of their universal bodies to find two things in bars: breasts, which are represented in Renaissance theatre by men with coconut halves on their chests, and frothing surfaces, which sit on the tops of pints of beer.
Certain kinds of people who sometimes have the capacity to internally reproduce other people were chosen as the site of misogynist testing by people who were desperate for something to photograph while at the beach and on yachts.
In his book A Bikini Story, which is supposedly a history of the bikini but functions more as a form of literary masturbation for its author, Patrik Alac refers to women via the archetype “the girl in the bikini.”
The girl in the bikini in this way adopts a measured way of walking, a style in which she can proceed provocatively along the beach, and make the best of all her bodily qualities. She uses certain provocative gestures she has seen—but not so that anyone could accuse her of being at all indecent. Her arms may be above her head, exposing her armpits; she may stride with her hips, like a mannequin on the catwalk; she may seem playful, lost in her thoughts, twisting the strap of her bikini around her little finger (suggesting quite clearly a character stronger than her body language—enough to twist a man she fancies around her little finger too). (p. 123)
After writing his book about the bikini, Patrik Alac falls off his chair and cries, incomparably distraught that no woman in a bikini ever fancied Patrik Alac enough to twist him around her bikini fingers.
It’s quite incredible how wrong Patrik Alac can be about the meaning of a pose. For Alac, everything is a performance for men. The observer is Universal, and he is called Patrik Alac. He observes with a hand in his pocket, hiding his electric hard-on.
What he is remarkably unable to see is the private space behind the performance of the Girl-in-the-Bikini. There is so much going on in the folds of polyester bands, behind the surface of the body’s cartographic skin, in excess of the pointing map directions. But Alac is blind to all of it, his vision distorted by the signs that point towards almost naked boobs.
Bikinis make maps on the bodies of their wearers, maps etched into and as the cartography of the body that can then be coded as feminized, racialized, gendered, ablized. The body is afforded coordinates of meaning depending on the extent of its self-revelation. The covered arms and high collar of suits are enduring symbols of serious men. A sea of cotton—of someone else’s labour—drenches them, and they expand as the bloating territory of self-conviction. Everything they do is hidden inside the folds of overhanging frills, lapels, tails. Some other kind of being walks without the signs of accumulated labour and trade attached to them, with only skin. These kinds of people cause Patrik Alac to hurt himself. He hides his stiff response in the many layers of a suit.
Bodies are given very different coordinates of meaning in the value system of capitalist modernity. In her 2005 book Ugly Feelings, cultural theorist Sianne Ngai writes about the ways in which the history of racial capitalism has managed the emotional coding of bodies. Since the Enlightenment in Europe, “rationality” has been the engine of liberal pursuits of homogeneous globalization, attempting to formulate a single idea of human scale: at the top, the most rational (i.e. the least emotional)—White, European, able-bodied, married and heterosexual man, with property; at the bottom, the least rational (i.e. the most emotional)—Black, non-European, disabled, queer or trans woman, without property.
Since the early twentieth-century form of factory-line production called Fordism, as Ngai writes, the meaning of the human has emerged in tandem with the requirements of capitalist production. Taking Immanuel Kant’s idea of the ideally rational, disinterested, and objective man to its extremity, the organization of the factory-line requires humans to perform regimented and repetitive tasks without the superfluity of feeling. Being overly moved or agitated becomes a marker of barbarism, through which the agitated or moved body is marked in the logics of race, gender, sexuality, and ability.
Ngai calls this form of being moved “animatedness,” and explains how it functions “as a marker of racial or ethnic otherness,” resulting in “signs of the raced subjects naturalness or authenticity” (p. 94-95). The Black person in the USA is coded with a form of over-emotion, with animatedness, which is situated in the body, creating a corporeal national code as nature: the African body is naturally animated, and therefore too irrational to function within the production processes of capitalism. This has been used historically to justify and maintain plantation slavery, the contemporary prison industry, and infinite instances of quotidian violence.
In the liberal imaginary, race is generally understood as something natural. Blacks are good at running, says someone. My auntie, or yours. There is some natural categorization of forms of life. Where racism is recognized within this nature, it is recognized as a mechanism of removal. Women, Black and Brown and Indigenous and Asian people, are removed from the central privilege of society’s space.
What radical Black feminist theorists say, though, is that firstly, race isn’t natural. That’s not the temporal order. Rather, nature is racial. It’s not that there was an objective and neutral thing called nature, and it made a thing called race, giving some bodies darkness because they spent generations around the equator and other bodies lightness because they spent ages outside the tropics. Instead, a system of social referents called race was created and then justified by the invention of a thing called nature which makes propositions non-negotiable.
Secondly, racialization isn’t the process of becoming invisible. It’s the process of becoming hypervisible. Invisibility is a privilege; it’s for those who can transcend the global logic of borders and checks and stops.
It’s astounding how successful the logic of race has become over six centuries. It manages to deem certain populations as vulnerable because of their surplus of emotion, their animatedness, and that vulnerability is also dangerous—the fact that they are irrational makes them capable of anything.
In his 2016 essay ‘Vulnerable Life: Zombies, Global Biopolitics, and the Reproduction of Structural Violence’, cultural theorist Stephen Pokornowski explains the complexity of this historical operation of race. He calls it a “double-bind—the vulnerable is at once that which wounds and that which is susceptible to being wounded,” turning the most vulnerable into the most dangerous (p. 5). This shifts the humanity of humans constantly, coding people’s access to the central definition if humanity through racialization, sexuality, ability, etc., which are subject to the moving ground of vulnerability.
Race here is a logic that createsthe codes of nature, ordering bodies along a scale of naturalness that allows some privileged forms of life (Whiteness, masculinity) to be further from nature, and so further from race, and so more self-protected, and so less dangerous, while making other forms of life (Blackness, womanness) more vulnerable, and thus more dangerous.
In her 2015 essay ‘Bodies with New Organs: Becoming Trans, Becoming Disabled’, queer and race theorist Jasbir K. Puar adds to this a discussion of the disabling of queer, trans, and racialized bodies. The process of becoming racialized, queered and trans is a process of being rendered into a shape that cannot fit the prescriptions of racist rationality. That twisted shape, however, traps the body even deeper in the violent mechanisms of appropriation. The racialized queer/trans body is not removed from the system that enforces hierarchical homogeneity; it is stuck even deeper inside it. To racialize a body as abject, it must also be debilitated from the possibility of removing itself from the mechanism of racialization.
Each category is placed on a complex trajectory of relation to the rational summit. Each category of the body has to connect somehow to the apex of capital’s invisible body-regime in order for it to be productive for the economic, cultural, and social value of the economy.
Puar traces these networks through the Whitening of queer activism, allowing certain queer bodies into the privileged invisibility of Whiteness, and through the pharmacological industry that profits from the medical reassignment of gender through hormonal treatments, subsuming the trans body in the productivity of pharma capital.
The question is how transsexual and disabled bodies are assigned social meaning. In both the discourses of transsexuality and disability, “normativization” is the objective. Transsexuality is treated with prosthetics, medication, hormonal enhancement, and even behavioural manipulation in order to turn the body from a nonconforming mode to a paradigm of ableist conformance. The trans body is pharmacologically presented as a body on its way to becoming non-disabled. So, while transitioning is presented as a process of becoming sexually non-normative, it simultaneously relocates the body within the code of ability as no longer disabled. It has been redeemed by corrective medicine. “Thus, trans relation to disability is not simply one of phobic avoidance of stigma; it is also about trans bodies being recruited, in tandem with many other bodies, for a more generalized transformation of capacitated bodies into viable neoliberal subjects,” as Puar writes (p. 47).
Puar sees disability in the global capitalist economy as a raw material that is used by non-conforming bodies to code themselves as successfully becoming conformant in the visuality of the economy. They do this through their movement away from and out of disability. Trans bodies disavow their relation to the disability in order to enter the valuable framework of transsexuality given by the fetishizing value-form of a liberal way of seeing.
There are coordinates in the violence of these mechanisms that allow movement outwards, into the liberal space of coherent social performances. Whiteness is such a powerful coordinate that it allows the movement of all other forms, to varying extents. While sexuality, gender, ability, nationality, religion, and ethnicity have the power to hinder movement, when they are aligned with Whiteness they can move anyway. Masculinity is another strong coordinate.
The body is divided into pieces, into the atomic matter of coordinating codes. This is what Puar calls the “bodies with new organs” in her essay’s title. The new organs are the range of complex coordinates that bodies are split into for the purposes of widely applicable value-reproduction: disability is accumulated and circulated in a different way to transsexuality, and they are both configured on a different line to race and gender, although they cross each other often.
The language we have at our use to talk about these things is insufficient to really talk about these things. Like philosopher Paul Preciado says in An Apartment on Uranus, “trans” is some bullshit word that tries to make it sound like the people who refuse gender are the ones in transition, the ones who are unstable and unable to conform to the requirements of binary gendering (pp. 183-185). But trans should be the word for anyone who still believes in the bullshit nonsense of binary gender. Obviously, all of humanity cannot be categorized into only two genders. The binary system is far too simplistic and expansive; it attempts to subsume everything into one of only two types.
Preciado, having refused the stupidity of binary gender and become not-this-or-that, is the non-trans one among us, in these paragraphs. Me, I’m trans, because I’m still in the transitional phase of calling myself a “man” before I come to the better realization that I am obviously not.
As I think about the bikini in the trenches of my masculinity, I keep wondering how the Bikini Islanders feel about their removal from home, and the use of their home as a bomb-testing range. On 1 March 1954, the largest weapon the USA has ever tested was exploded on the Bikini Atoll (<https://www.bikiniatoll.com/>).
When testing began in 1946, the 167 Bikini Islanders living on the atoll were moved some 700 kilometres away to Kili Island, also in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In 1970, 100 residents were repatriated, however the contamination was so dangerous that they were removed again by 1980. Now the atoll is only occupied occasionally by researches and caretakers.
The American military convinced the Bikini Islanders to leave by stating the use of their home as a nuclear testing site was “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” The Bikinian leader—King Juda—agreed, assured that they would be able to return to their home shortly. Most of them would never return, and many are still seeking repatriation and rights to their land today. The latest appeal to the US Congress was in 2018.
The USA replaced the Bikini Islanders with a huge ensemble of military weapons and machines, alongside 5,400 rats, pigs, and goats to test their devices on.
Before the Americans arrived, the atoll was colonized by Japan. Before that it was under the colonial rule of Germany, and before that—since its military first sailed there from Europe in the seventeenth century—by Spain. The Japanese military built a fort on Bikini to protect against American invasion during World War II, which eradicated the Bikinian way of life.
The Americans did invade, however, capturing the Marshall Islands’ Kwajelein Atoll in 1944. On Bikini, there were five Japanese soldiers left. They retreated to a hole, hiding from the spreading force of American weaponry, but there was nowhere else to go. Instead of being taken as prisoners of war, compacted into the service of their enemy, they exploded a grenade in their final hiding place, an act of suicide that robbed the new invader of its invading pleasures.
The US military moved the Bikini Islanders around as they shifted their explosive and extractive operations in the many islets and atolls of the Marshall Islands. In September 1948, some Bikinians were taken to Kili to begin clearing the land as a possible site of settlement, and the Bikinians on Kwajelein were moved there just two months later. On Kili, starvation was an acute problem for the Bikinians, as their traditional methods of making food on Bikini were no longer possible, and rough seas made it difficult to bring anything from other islands.
In 1979 the Marshall Islands gained independence from the USA, establishing self-government across its enormous archipelago. The US still has administrative control over the island, though. The USA is today the world’s largest overseas territorial empire, with governing control of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Marianas, and American Samoa, and “special responsibilities” for the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, as Chamorro poet Craig Santos Perez writes (p. 105) in his essay ‘Guam and Archipelagic American Studies’, printed in Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens’s 2017 collection Archipelagic American Studies.
The people of these archipelagic territories of the USA do not have American rights, but their lives are regulated from the land that calls itself continental America, in opposition to the watery archipelagic separatedness of the overseas territories.
The US withdrew its military rule over the Marshall Islands in 1971, which also halted their regular flights between Kwajelein and Bikini, keeping the Bikinians even further from their homeland.
Guam—another nation under the administrative empire of continental America, in the group of Pacific island countries called Micronesia—has similarly fought for centuries against colonization, has similarly been ignored as simply another island to use as a strategic point of command between the desired continents, has similarly been rejected as a logic and a life-form of its own and understood by continental empires solely as a means of extracting profit and appropriating populations on the continents either side of the ocean.
The islands are so broken up, so washed about in the flux of the sea, like narrative, like slices of poetry.
The islands are so tiny, so concentrated in their specificity.
So disconnected to whatever comes over them, before them, a thousand kilometres from their withdrawing shores.
In 2009, the USA and Japan proposed a new series of military constructions in Guam, filling up the small island with soldiers and the cascade of massive weaponry that follows them. The eleven-thousand-page proposal was delivered and Chamorros—the people of Guam—were given ninety days to read it and respond. Among other things, as Santos Perez writes, it detailed “how the military planned to build a live firing range complex around the ancient Chamorro village of Pågat, to replace hundreds of acres of jungle for permanent military facilities, and to rip out more than two million square feet of living coral reef to dredge a deep-draft wharf” (p. 106).
Chamorro poet Melvin Won Pat-Borja responded, as poets do, as Chamorros do, with poetry.
Sir, what if we protest and unite as a people, and in the end they just do whatever they want?
I understand that the federal government has done worse things and gotten away with it, like smallpox blankets, like nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, like dropping bombs on Vieques, like holding the sovereign queen of Hawai‘i at gunpoint to sign the annexation. (in Santos Perez, pp. 106-107.)
The Marshallese lawsuit against the USA for its invasion and mismanagement of the islands is brought by the Bikini, Kili, and Ejit local Marshallese governments, and seeks at least US$561,036,320. In 1975, a trust fund of $3million was established by the US government for the Bikinians. When they were again removed from Bikini beginning in 1978, another $3million was added to the trust fund. In 2006, this fund closed, which is when the lawsuit began.
And Won Pat-Borja responds,
The hands of your Presidents are drenched in the blood of our fallen—the same presidents that we are not allowed to vote for.
In 2001, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal granted Bikinians $563,315,500, including a loss of value of $278,000,000, restoration costs of $251,500,000, and suffering and hardship value of $33,814,500. However, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal did not actually have the funds to pay this amount to Bikinians, forcing them to take this claim to the US Congress to convince them to pay.
Marshallese poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner calls the Marshalls “the land of survivors,” “a country more sea than land” (< https://www.kathyjetnilkijiner.com/>). What it must take to survive that much sea, that much movement into the squeezed concentrate of your island. The island is, slowly, inside the sea. The video of the poem shows construction machinery on a beach, grazing the final embers of industrial calories between the sea and the land, before the distinction erodes and the poet herself is consumed, walking alone in a tiny strip, an archipelagic isthmus in its final throes, and its winding possibility of revival. “Let me show you airports under water, bulldozed reefs, blasted sands, and plans to build new atolls, forcing land from an ancient, rising sea. Forcing us to imagine turning ourselves to stone.” The cities of empires will have to learn to “breathe underwater,” while these island lives are stuffed and set upon corpsing stones, the ridicule of the lifeless island form; positioned as a tourist outpost, as an archipelagic strategy to access conquerable continents; but these island lives know how to breathe, breathe underwater, because they are mostly water and they have been since before anyone remembers, since before the moment the sea appeared, just there, behind them. Empire Cities will have to learn how to breathe like islands, or the survival trained in these closed archipelagos will go, down into the sea where everything looks exactly the same; it’s bloated and it’s dead and blue. “My sister, I offer you these rocks as a reminder that our lives matter more than their power,” says Greenlandic Inuit poet Aka Niviâna to Jetñil-Kijiner, offering her a basket of rocks. And they say together, “each and every one of us has to decide if we will rise.” To rise is a threat from inside the sea, it seems, but the island lives of Jetñil-Kijiner and Niviâna appear as the possibility of an island rising out of the sea, emerging again as an island, as the land of survivors, where many may have been swept away in their fight against the sea, many may have been subsumed into the military operations of transoceanic warfare, but their form survived, the form that is their survival. And that form is given in the rocks that will rise from the sea, while the Cities of Empire continue to watch the sprawling upwards motion of the tide on TV screens, hooked on the bait of expansion. The island is rising, coming back again as an island, forming archipelagic links only with other islands, living as resistance to the project of the sea.
Let the record show that in the face of oppression and injustice, the people of Guam refuse to live a life absent of liberty, that we refuse to accept anything less than justice, that we refuse to sell Guam to the highest bidder. And should we die fighting your war machine, let your history books show your children the struggle that we fought to find freedom in a country filled with hypocrisy. Let the record show that Guåhan stood up and said, Uncle Sam, sorry, but No Deal. (Won Pat-Borja, in Santos Perez.)