Thursday, January 10, 2013

On motivations for writing

So I read this really good post about writing this morning (Great work, Donna!), and it reminded me of a conversation I had recently about how writing in grad school is different from writing in undergrad.

Melville certainly didn't want to write for nothing! 
In her post, Donna asks the very important question, "Do most writers write just for the sake of writing?" There's certainly a narrative of the artist as a creature of passion and a construction of art being divorced from profit which makes it easy for non-artists to spin tales explaining that artists like writers simply practice their craft for the craft's own sake and neither expect nor desire monetary compensation for their work (if the craft is even considered "work" in these tales). But this romanticization (if that's indeed the best word) misses the point that artists -- writers included -- are not independent of material existence. One has to ask, whose interests are being served by positing that writers don't really need compensation for their work because they are somehow above that, because, you know, art is corrupted by money?

I think that's an important conversation to have, and I think Donna offers a poignant address to that conversation.

When I think about how this conversation and especially Donna's original question apply to me as a writer, I find myself confronted with what seems to me a tension between motivations for writing.

First, I write because it is for me a method for thinking. I think when I write, and I find that many times I learn about new ways of thinking about topics as I write about them. This is one of my favorite experiences and favorite aspects of being a student: the moment in the writing of an essay when in the middle of a sentence you finally understand how to put into words an intuition that has been guiding your writing or you make a connection between ideas you didn't think of beforehand.

I also write because I want to be part of larger conversations. While I do learn through writing, and while I do get some kind of personal pleasure out of writing, I also ultimately want to have an audience beyond myself for my writing. I want to be a voice involved in important conversations about political and social topics about which I care deeply. I want to have something relevant and carefully researched and thought out to contribute in a meaningful and efficacious way. This was one of my biggest motivations for deciding to pursue a PhD instead of a teaching degree. This is also what motivates me to want to write not just for academic publications one day, but also for other mediums as well (note: this does not mean that I in any way believe there is anything wrong with academic publications -- it simply a personal desire of my own). And this is the first big difference between writing in undergrad and writing as a grad student that I've found: Usually, when you write a paper as an undergrad, you are writing for yourself and your professor who is grading you, period. When you write as a grad student, you are writing with an eye towards an audience beyond the folks that have taken and taught courses you've taken. You are often writing with an eye towards publication for slightly larger audiences. (Or at least that's how my professors are teaching me at the moment and that is how I am writing).

And then there is another difference between undergrad and graduate writing, and this, I think, is where Donna's post pushed me to rethink these questions. I want to be a part of larger conversations because I want to do my part to shape political, social, and material conditions to do whatever little bit I can to shape a better world, on whatever scale possible. And in the career path I have chosen, this means at least writing for publication in academic journals/collections (someday -- fingers crossed!). But this goal of publication also has another dimension to it. Not only does it offer a possible way of thinking and thus affecting the political/social/material, but it is also a path towards becoming more employable. When it comes down to it, even though I have plenty of motivations for my current career path which are beyond my self, when I write with an eye for publication I cannot pretend that it is only because I want to have a voice in these "larger conversations" -- I also want to give myself the best chance I can to get a job!

This is quite a balancing act. When I write, I write for the act itself. I write because writing is a rewarding activity on its own. I also write because I see it as one method of performing a kind of public service for the larger communities of which I am a part. But I also write because I want to make my CV as strong as possible for when I'm on the job market in five years. I'm not sure if it bothers me, and if it does, I don't know why it would, but I am definitely conscious of the ways in which my motivations to have my writing published provide a tension between self-interest and community-interest.

I'm not sure what that means right now, but there it is.      

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year!

Well 2012 is over and we're in a new year (a year which has has four sequential numbers as its digits! 0, 1, 2, and 3!). In the weeks leading up to the end of 2012 I saw a whole bunch of lists and whatnot everywhere from CNN to Sportscenter looking back at the past year. Hell, Facebook even told me what my top 20 moments were for the year (they probably tried to tell you yours too!).

I didn't really stop to reflect on my own year until after the ball dropped and friends went back home after gathering to celebrate. But thinking about it, 2012 was a really great year in my life, personally.

I started the year with the most functional "family vacation" I've ever been on to celebrate my girlfriend's birthday, and I got to pet a freakin' dolphin as a bonus! Then at the end of February came a single week of awesome which included getting accepted into Cornell, learning I would be getting a SUNY Chancellor's Award, attending a Sigma Tau Delta (yup, the English honors society's abbreviation is STD...) conference where my essay was recognized as best in its category ($!), and spending a wonderful time with wonderful people in New Orleans (though a friend and I might have gotten lost trying to find the Backstreet Cultural Museum...). And then after that week I could wrap up my career at Geneseo by just reveling in a place where I had found home with folks I had found to be family. After graduation came a last-minute decision to embark on a road trip from Long Island to Texas with some friends ("The best trip ever!"), and then I got to begin my graduate studies at Cornell University. Keeping things to one paragraph, all in all 2012 was a great ride! I am extremely humbled by my luck and grateful for all of my sources of support in my life, and thankful to  everyone who helped make this such a great year for me on a personal level.

My aunt and uncle lost their house in Breezy Point during Sandy.
And at the same time, I remember some of the not-so-great things about 2012, including our gridlocked politics in the U.S., violence around the world in places like Syria, the sixteen mass shootings in our own country, and natural disasters such as earthquakes in the Middle East and Phillipines and Hurricane Sandy. I remember that for many people, 2012 held its share of tragedies, or at least was not necessarily the best year of their lives. 

But I also remember Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk, which has been more influential on me than I can express, on "The Danger of the Single Story," and I stop myself before thinking that for some people 2012 was nothing but a tragic year, as if human experience can be squished into a single dimension. That is not to diminish the terrible events of 2012, but to simply recognize that while individuals cannot escape their contexts and environments, they are not defined by these things.

And so I'm now thinking about what it means to celebrate New Year's Eve/Day. We perform this new beginning, and yet there is no cleaning of the slate, no reset button which sets up a brand new year -- just the continuation of moments. So the performance of it all seems a little empty, doesn't it? 

As someone who is admittedly suspicious of celebrations of holidays, I do think celebrating New Year's is a valuable and meaningful performance. No, we don't get to wipe the slate clean and start over as if the new is separate from the old, but we can for just a moment resolve to work towards beginning anew, even as we must continue to live with the same responsibilities we had the previous calendar year. We can begin again as if for the first time, while at the same time we remain grounded in the inescapable continuum from past to future which we call the present. We can, for a moment, embody contradiction.

And I think that in that moment of contradiction, in that moment in which we can simultaneously start over again and keep on swimming the same stream of time we can find our potential to negotiate another embodied contradiction. While our individual lives may seem small in comparison to the world at large and yet infinitely important to our own emotional well-being, we can assert our miniscule individuality as a mechanism for affecting our environments at large. We can embody the contradiction of the smallness and the profundity of individuality, and that is humbling.

So here's to a new year that's both brand new and just a continuation of the very old. There's nothing new under the sun, but each day is itself a different day. At least I think so.      



Friday, December 7, 2012

On the desire for "universal" literature and classroom pedagogy

It's been over two months since my last post, I know. I guess grad school got in the way. I remember thinking, "Hey, I should write up a blog post about this" a few times, but I never actually did it, so I think my next couple will be me trying to remember what I wanted to say in those moments over the past two months.

One of these moments came in an undergraduate class that I audited this semester at Cornell. For one of the weeks of the course we read Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. I had not read this novel before (What?!) and was excited for the discussion we would be having. Unfortunately, we spent most of our time, at the direction of the professor, basically making a list of all the ways in which the characters of Achebe's novel were similar to us and in general folks in out contemporary society. 

Now, I say unfortunately not because I don't think this is a valuable exercise. Indeed, when approaching works of literature that represent people who are outside of a cultural "mainstream" in an undergraduate course it is sometimes a good idea to confront feelings of hyperinvisibility head-on. As someone who works in African American literature, I have seen time and again the performance, "Well that culture is so different from mine I can't possibly relate to what's going on in that novel" or the less tactful "Why can't black writers write about stuff we can all relate to instead of just for other black people."

Granted, Achebe's novel falls within the field of African literature and yet is in some ways part of the literary canon taught in American schools (or such is my impression -- most of my classmates had read the novel in high school). But there is still this "space alien" approach. One could imagine an approach to the novel completely opposite to my professor's desire to list all the ways in which Okonkwo's society is similar to our own and thus not space-alien where instead the class is encouraged to list all of the ways the world of the novel is radically different from the world of the reader in the American Ivy League University. I am thankful that this was not the approach.

But I am still irked at the approach my professor took to teaching the novel. Again, there is value in the exercise he wanted to perform that day in the classroom, but my frustration is with the fact that the entire lesson was singularly focused on that point, on illuminating how like us Achebe's characters are. I did my best to steer discussion towards the particularities of the text and Okonkowo's particular struggles as a subject in a society viewed as already lacking by the centers of imperial power that eventually make their presence known by the novel's conclusion. But these attempts were met with resistance by an instructor who didn't want us to get caught up in differences, but instead wanted insist on the sameness of people from different cultures.

And that's fine, but it can't be the only thing we attend to when we read literature, or even think about cultural identity. In this same class we read Toni Morrison's Beloved, and when someone made the point that Morrison is thinking about what slavery means for African Americans, before the final word came out of my classmate's mouth our professor said "But not just African Americans, she's talking to all of us!" And yes, she is. Yes, these novels do speak to the level of general humanity. But they are also particular novels about particular identity constructions. I think it is absolutely imperative that when we work with literatures from social groups and cultures which have been historically marginalized, we strike a constant and perhaps even tense balance between paying attention to the more general, or what some scholars would call "universal" aspects of the texts and the particularities of the texts, at the same time.

I put "universal" in scare quotes because I am suspicious of it. Why id there such a desire to claim books are "universal?"

Toni Morrison is my favorite author. I have literally read all of her novels and I absolutely love each and every one (though I have my favorites, of course). So I like when other people like her too. But I get very suspicious at the number of folks who praise Morrison by immediately talking about how "universal" her writing is, as if her greatness lies in the fact that she doesn't just talk about black experiences or women's experiences, but all of our experiences.

And again, let me repeat, that's true. Her novels are about love, lust, grief, hatred, property, death, birth, faith, and many other human experiences that transcend particular groups' claims on them. But at the same time her novels are about America's historic commitment to white supremacy, our inheritance of death and slavery, the costs of capitalism, and what it means to be black and/or a woman in a society that is organized according to what Carole Pateman and Charles Mills call the "sexual-racial contract." So I am very irked when in conversations about Morrison's work, there seems to be an imbalance of attention placed on these "universal" dimensions as opposed to what might be race or gender or sex specific dimensions, just like I was irked in the aforementioned discussion about Things Fall Apart by the insistence on such "universal" dimensions as opposed to colonial or imperialistic dimensions.  

And it's really the "as opposed to" that aggravates me. Let me repeat because I know someone will misconstrue what I'm saying: it is valuable to insist on similarities between cultures and for students to get past the "space alien" position in relation to a text. But it is a detriment to inquiry to insist on only this strategy at the expense of honest and critical interrogations of particularities of experience which may be influenced by power relationships based on factors such as race, sex, gender, etc. Because when it comes down to it, all this desire for "universalism" really just reminds me of the desire for "colorblindness" in race relations at the social, political, and economic levels. And I don't need to go into all the ways in which colorblindness is itself a racially charged position masquerading as race-neutral.

If I may close with another moment from a course this semester. During our discussion of Toni Morrison's Jazz in one of my courses, at one point it seemed like person after person was trying to psychologically diagnose Dorcas to figure out why she didn't tell anyone who had shot her, to figure out why she didn't want anyone to call an ambulance for her, to figure out why she died if she only received a non-fatal gunshot wound to the shoulder. One person started speculating that she must have wanted to die and even though Joe pulled the trigger it was really her fault (talk about blaming the victim! But that's another story...or is it?) that she actually died because she told her best friend Felice not to call 911. I was temporarily speechless at how strong the resistance in the conversation to talking about race had to be in order to allow for all of this speculation about why Dorcas died. Because the text tells us that her friend Felice didn't listen to her; she called an ambulance anyway!

"But I did it. Called the ambulance, I mean; but it didn't come until morning after I had called twice. The ice, they said, but really because it was colored people calling."

You can't ignore a line like that. And if seven or eight different people in a conversation all forgot about it until I brought it up, I have to ask what motivates this kind of forgetting? I think it has something to do with the desire for the universal, the desire to approach literature without dirtying ourselves by talking about such grossly particular issues like race. And I think these desires need to be pushed back against in the classroom by pedagogy that attends to both the more general and more particular dimensions of a text without weighing one over the other, not a pedagogy that just wants to make lists of similarities or differences between cultures.         

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I am an academic Marxist...what?!

Most anyone who has had a discussion with me about anything remotely related to politics (and I can relate anything to politics -- trust me) would probably agree that if we were forced to use labels, I'd be labeled as some kind of Marxist. Sometimes it's said with a chuckle (even by me) and an admittance that it means I'm kind of crazy. Sometimes, I imagine, it's said with disdain (though usually not in front of my face). Sometimes it's said with a sneer by someone who knows better about how flawed or confused Marx (is/was). But for most who know me, it's said.

So let me say it. I am some kind of a Marxist. There's so much packed up into that word that I don't want to leave it out there without the qualifier "some kind of," because without such a qualifier there are just too many layers (or, perhaps as Derrida would say, "spirits," or "ghosts") to Marx (even as he gets packaged more and more reductively both in common parlance and academic conversation).

I'm currently taking a class on Jacques Derrida, and it is forcing me every week to rethink my own conceptions of the political; of what my purpose, my mission, my reason on this earth is; of how I expect to authentically act on this purpose, mission, reason; of my intellectual commitments to a fundamentally Marxist project; of my simultaneous weariness and forcefulness in claiming a Marxist identity; of my very conception of what it means to do work, or even to do; of my (mis-)understandings of the divisions between schools of thought. In short, the class makes me think. And rethink. A lot.

So the past three weeks we've been working through Derrida's Specters of Marx, and I have found our slow walk through this book (in a grad school life where I'm reading entire books each week only to discuss them for two hours in class before moving on to the next book, the time we take to dwell in this class is incredibly refreshing) to be enormously troubling, confusing, and invigorating.

There's so much I'm thinking about right now as I sit here and type just after getting out of this class that I don't even yet have the language to express what I'm thinking nor the intellectual force to even organize what I'm thinking into a mental substance fit for language. But I will try, since this is a blog post and I kind of want to keep this short and readable, to limit my discussion here to one of the critical points on which I'm meditating:

What is my responsibility as a socially and politically engaged intellectual? What does it mean to actually be an academic (as I hope to be), but to always be identified (for almost always others point it out about me before I admit it myself! - as happened in this Derrida class) as a Marxist? What are my ethical obligations and how can I go to sleep at night with my dreams of changing the world (because, after all, of what else does a Marxist dream?!) knowing that my hands and feet aren't all that tired from a day of dirty work? (and that last question, as one of my most important mentors knows, has been haunting me since before I got to Cornell)

I must confess that I've been struggling since the Occupy movement became visible* to justify (not sure if this is the right phrasing, but it's what I've got now) to myself my career aspirations, namely, my decision to attempt to earn a PhD and become a professor somewhere. Indeed, one professor I spoke to voiced that they believed I seemed better suited to work for a nonprofit or some such similar work. And I struggled with this as I watched people doing the "dirty work" of camping out in Zuccotti Park and marching and demonstrating and organizing organic conversational committees and leaderless groups. "Why am I not down there?" I though. What the hell am I doing up here in the academy?

As if the academy was separate from Zuccotti Park!

I had a crucially important conversation with someone (I'm not sure this person even realizes how important this conversation was to me) about this reservation before leaving Geneseo to begin the project that is graduate school. And this conversation helped me to understand activism in a way that was much more broad (and historically and factually accurate!) than my previous conception. It helped me to understand that there are spaces besides the streets in front of the cameras where activist work takes place, and that the halls of academia are one such place. And so I found myself rethinking my conception of activism and agency. We can do work in the academy to affect change in real social conditions. We are not (unless we choose to be -- which is itself always a political choice even as it masks itself as apolitical) separated from "the real world" or in some kind of bubble just because we spend our time reading, thinking, and talking (and being, right Heidegger?). There is work to be done in all spaces, including academia.

But what is "the work" I am talking about when I talk about "doing the work"? What the hell does that vague phrase which I repeat ad nauseum all the time, mean? 

Well, for me it means, as I said in a previous post, crafting my career in the model of a public intellectual. Of extending my teaching beyond the walls of the classroom, of writing in a style that appeals to more readers than other academics (not instead of, but in addition to academic writing), of writing in venues besides academic journals and university presses, etc.

So you can imagine my feeling when today in class my professor directly asked the question, "What is the responsibility of the intellectual?" and began to spin this story I just spun about engaging in the project of being a public intellectual in the extremely condensed way I just described only to end by exclaiming, "Hogwash! Don't give me that. Your only responsibility is to think."   

How dare he mock the career trajectory I have been thinking and talking seriously about for a year now! (for indeed, as he himself said, he was mocking on purpose)

But as I listened and thought, I realized something about myself: even as I so strongly value intellectual virtue, even as I take great pleasure in the life of the mind, even as I thirst for knowledge and understanding about any topic imaginable, I had, without realizing it or ever explicitly saying it, formed a binary at the bedrock of my thinking that placed thinking in opposition to "doing the work." Or, if not in direct opposition, then I had defined thinking as necessarily being that which in itself is never enough to qualify as work.

I had become so invested in the materialist concerns of Marxism that I had adopted (ideologically and dogmatically perhaps -- which is ironic, not characteristic of Marxism**, by the way. But see my second footnote so this parenthetical remark doesn't get even longer) a view of mental work as being insufficiently disconnected from the material. But perhaps this isn't the case. Thinking is work. What was Marx himself after all (well, he said he wasn't a Marxist, to be fair) but a thinker? The project of Marxism is, fundamentally, the realization of Justice (and this is why I am, for all of my problems with some of the particulars of Marxist theory, fundamentally a Marxist). And how do we get to Justice without thinking? Thinking our past, thinking our present, thinking our future? There is no activism without thinking; there is no Justice without thinking. Thinking matters. It is work.

Now, this does not mean I have converted to my professor's dismissive position regarding that whole public intellectual issue. I still want to do all of those things like write for a newspaper as well as for academic journals (an idea he seemed to be particularly vicious towards). But I have been forced to rethink what I think about thinking. And man, is this hard work. 

*(I say "became visible" rather than "began" because it can, I think, be less than ideal to start discussions about when a social movement "began," as if it wasn't an extension of what has already been -- and yet the particulars of our age demand that we begin again as if for the first time (every time), as Derrida says! But I digress...)

**Marx was nothing if not open to self-criticism. He wrote into his own theory the possibility of himself being superseded. Marxism is not merely a dogmatic list of propositions, as so many people (even folks who teach it in their course on Literary Theory) think. It is a way of thinking the world, a way of thinking about one's place in the world and one's responsibility to humanity. And part of that thinking is a commitment to critique everything, including the thinking itself. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

On keeping the "martial" in Martial Arts

After all that talk about becoming a public intellectual in my last post, this one has nothing to do with academia. Instead, I want to start here:

I am a martial artist.

Not, "I do/practice martial arts." Nope. I am a martial artist.

Because this is so much at the core of my identity, I wear it on my sleeve (or, I guess, on my skin...) proudly. Not in the way where I walk around like "I know how to fight and I bet I could kick your ass." Well, that should be obvious, because a martial artist in the proper sense would never do that. We don't care about whose ass we could or could not kick until there's no other choice. It seriously has nothing to do with competition.

So you see, I get kind of irked when folks -- especially those who also practice martial arts or call themselves martial artists -- immediately begin talking about being turned off by competition or being more interested in the "tradition" or "spiritual" side of martial arts when they hear me describe the way I train and the way my home school (Holbrook Kempo!) trains.

People are usually interested in the fact that I train until I get to the part where I talk about hitting. In the school that I come from, we like to hit each other. A lot. Pretty hard. Not to hurt each other on purpose, but enough so that we know when we get hit it isn't a tag or a touch. It's a hit. It's unpleasant. Sometimes someone leave a sparring class with a bloody nose or a black eye (I know I've had both!). And that's ok. We check our egos at the door so it's not about besting each other or getting someone back for doing so. We should train harder to not get hit. Or if we ever do get hit during an actual fight, we won't be surprised by the feeling.

But when people who don't train hear this, they get really surprised. And I get that. It's weird if you don't train to hear someone say that they "miss" -- sincerely miss -- hitting and getting hit. But what gets me is the dozens and dozens of times people who do train hear me describe that mentality and immediately recoil, as if the folks with whom I train and I are kind of crazy.

Immediately, I usually get one of two (if not both) responses:
(1) "We're more into the traditional/spiritual side of training."
(2) "We're not into competition."

I take severe exception to these responses. Not in a way that makes me angry or upset, but in a way that irritates me, mostly because of how tired I am of the repetition. (So if you've said one of these things to me before, I was probably very annoyed, but it's not personal -- I'm annoyed at the larger script, as I'll explain here)

First of all, I'll get (2) out of the way, since it's so easy to do away with. In no way is hitting equatable with competition. Just because we hit each other and spar regularly does not in any way mean we're in competition with each other. I could not care less about being better or worse than anyone else on the face of the planet at fighting. That's not the point of sparring.

Sparring is not about competition.
Sparring is not about competition.
Sparring is not about competition.
 Got it? Good.

Sparring is about learning about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. It's about learning to be a better fighter. It's about testing your self-control and seeing just how far you've come in your training at keeping your ego in check in a controlled, safe environment. Sparring is not real fighting. It is training. But it still hurts. And it should. But that doesn't mean the two people sparring are competing with each other. It means they are each pushing each other to better themselves. They are on a collective mission for individual improvement. By committing to give your sparring partner an honest hit (not tag or touch) when they leave themselves open, you are helping them become better. And likewise when they commit to do the same for you.

Now, let's talk about (1). The logical assumption that underlies this reply to my description of "hitting" is that somehow by being focused on the combative side of a martial art, that makes one less in touch with the spiritual side.

This, to be blunt, is bullshit. I kind of apologize for the language, but not really.

"Martial Art" is a single noun made up of two words, and both words share equal importance. I take both sides very seriously -- that's why after 16 years of training I still call myself a beginner.

A martial art is an art. It is beautiful. It is creative. It is intellectual, working multiple layers of theories and principles and concepts into techniques and forms which take years -- decades! -- to truly understand in any meaningful way. I'm still learning lessons from my white belt techniques! This is art. This is tradition.

And it is important for a martial artist to grow and cultivate the body, mind, and spirit as one. We not only exercise our bodies -- keeping our hearts and other muscles strong and conditioned, reducing unnecessary tension which impedes effective motion, strengthening our lungs and diaphragm to help make breathing more controlled and efficient, trying to keep ourselves flexible as we age, etc.; we also exercise our minds -- some of my favorite aspects of the martial arts are the mental aspects, the layers upon layers of theory and conceptual work built into tiny pieces of technique which can provide a practitioner with years of exciting training as they try to truly understand how that technique actual works -- and how it doesn't!; and we also exercise our spirits: martial arts is inherently a character building and spiritual experience.

Think about it this way. Should I ever get into a physical confrontation in which I have to, out of necessity, physically fight to protect myself or those that I love, I am trained to destroy -- my instructor has an affection for the word "liquify" -- my opponent. That is a huge, huge responsibility. Such training must by necessity be balanced by intense spiritual training -- and by that I don't necessarily mean prayer and chanting (though that works for some people). I mean serious training in humility and compassion, in the rules of respect, discipline, and self-control.

In my system, our "front position" which signifies our simultaneous relaxed alertness, involves making a fist with one hand and holding it close to your body in front of your chest, in front of your heart, and then covering the fist with the other hand. This gesture is not merely a hand position; it means something. It tells a story. It says, "I have a weapon -- my martial arts skill -- that I treasure and carry close to my heart. I can use this weapon effectively if pressed, but I wish to keep it covered. I wish to keep it close to me and not use it."


So you see, just because we like to hit each other does not in any way mean we do not value tradition or spiritual growth and development. I spend just as much time talking about character when I teach (with both adults and children) as I do talking about fighting. Because the two are inseparable. If you are a responsible teacher you can't teach how to destroy something unless you also teach of the terrible consequences of destruction, of the extremity, not normalcy, which breeds destruction, and of the imperative to not only avoid destroying but to preserve and cultivate whenever possible.

I want to end by returning to this sense of the singe noun made up of two words: the singular duality of the noun "Martial Art."

This single noun encompasses two spaces of meaning. It describes an Art: something which requires training and a precise set of skills, and perhaps something which can achieve or express certain forms of beauty. It also describes something Martial: something having to do with combat, with fighting.  

In order to be training in a true martial art as a true martial artist, one must recognize the equal importance of these two dimensions in their unification in the term "Martial Art."

Too often today, I believe folks drift towards one end of a spectrum of emphases over another.

In general, some MMA folks are so focused on competition that they forget about the rich cultural traditions and spiritual journeys packed into techniques they're learning in their quest to become the most efficient fighters they can be. And for a lot of them, that's fine, and they would admit that, since for them they're training to fight, period. And honestly, because of this honesty, I find this polarization easier to stomach than the other trend that I see. 

The other trend is in practitioners of traditional martial arts (as I consider myself to be), and I believe it comes from both the emergence of a vibrant MMA community across the US and the explosion of popularity of  Kenpo, Tae Kwon Do, and bastardizations of Japanese Karate schools (this explosion of popularity means TMA has become a viable and vibrant business model, which means there is more incentive to start a scholl to earn money and therefore a large number of poor quality martial arts schools, especially in the most popular styles).

It is this almost complete disconnect from the "Martial" in "Martial Art." There are many traditional martial arts practitioners now (I see them all over the place at tournaments) who train for years and attain high ranks without ever seriously considering the martial applications and implications of what they do.

For some, to focus on the combative side of the martial art would somehow violate some kind of moral high ground on which they place their martial art. As if they're above fighting and have progressed to the point where they simply focus on tradition and spiritual development. But as I already explained, the spiritual development inherent in true martial arts training is explicitly intertwined with the martial context in which all of the training develops. While not all martial arts are Eastern or explicitly ground themselves in this particular school of philosophy, I think most display an uncanny embodiment of the philosophy of balanced unison of opposites permeating the Taoist text, the Tao-te Ching. Not to mention, for all the talk of tradition, it would do these folks well to remember just how many martial arts (at least of Chinese, Japanese, and Okinawan origin; I don't know as much about Korean, Western, Philipino, or other arts) actually developed as ways to train to fight on the battlefield or protect oneself from thieves or oppressive ruling classes. Their founding contexts are martial. The spirituality, in a way, grows out of the combative.

For others, they train simply to compete at tournaments, and so for them it's about the flash. Can I throw my weapon in the air and make it spin more times than the other guy before I catch it? Can I learn more gymnastic tricks which will make my forms look more impressive in front of judges? Can I learn the best strategies to score points in the heavily structured game of point sparring? These folks, admittedly, drive me absolutely crazy. Don't even get me started on the phrase, "extreme martial arts"! (Is that still even a thing? I hope not.) These folks have no understanding -- and in many cases no desire to have any kind of understanding -- of the martial application of what they're doing.

And there's a problem with both of these groups of students that tend to focus too heavily on the "art" without the "martial": without a grounding in the combative elements of what you're doing, a martial art becomes nothing more than choreographed calisthenics. If that's what you want to do, fine with me. Just don't call it a "martial art," then, because you're ignoring an entire half of the term you're using. (And that's why these people tend to bother me more than MMA folks. They're not honest about their imbalance. They profess to be teaching balance in many cases, but in fact forget a half. At least an MMA athlete who doesn't care about the tradition or spirituality -- and I'm not saying they're all like this, because in fact there are many MMA athletes who care deeply about tradition and spirituality -- will usually come out and say so.)

So I guess what I'm trying to say is actually quite simple. Be true to the wholeness of the Martial Arts. They are truly amazing bodies of knowledge, sites of memory of cultural traditions, beautiful fields of performance art, ways of telling and re-telling stories, sites of improvisation, and sets of tools for engaging in human-to-human combat. And all of those things are equally valuable. And in order to be a true martial art, it must encompass all of these aspects. And in order to be a complete martial artist, one must strive to train and understand all of these aspects together.

I hope I'm doing a good job myself, but I can always be better.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why the heck do I keep blogging? Imagining my career path already...

Yeah yeah yeah, it's been three weeks since my last post. I know. But I just started a PhD program, so I'm not doing much other than reading, and reading, and reading lately. But I want to keep this up, so I will try to keep doing blog posts once in a while, but probably even less regularly than I did over the summer.

Let me take a quick moment to explain one of my reasons to continue to keep up this blog. I know not a lot of people read it, but it's important to me, personally, to keep writing it. This is not only because of the need for an outlet I expressed in my very first post, but also because of my hopes for the kind of academic career I want to have.

Now, what could blogging have to do with becoming an English professor? Well, while many of my professors here at Cornell are repeatedly telling me and the rest of the first-year cohort it's too early to be thinking about the job market or professionalizing in general, I have to say it's hard for me to not think about it. I mean, we all imagine what we want to be when we grow up, right? I'm still doing that. I know not to stress about the market, but I certainly have a vision (that very well could change!) of what kind of professional I want to be. So it was interesting when on the very first day of the course I'm taking titled "Toni Morrison's Novels" part of our discussion was about the question of "what is a public intellectual?"

In all of my wide-eyed first-year graduate student naivety I have this idea of somehow shaping myself into some kind of public intellectual. For me, while I very much look forward to teaching, research, and even the challenges of faculty governance (though from what I'm hearing this will very very quickly dissipate!), I also want to do work "outside" the traditional bounds of the academy. I want to provoke discussion not only in the classroom, but also at the dinner table or the pub about power structures and cultural issues. I actually enjoy academic writing, and like a lot of my young peers I've met so far at Cornell have ambitions of publishing articles in prestigious academic journals or even an academic book one day. But I also want to write newspaper columns, books for readers beyond the world of academia, and blog posts.

Yes, blog posts. Because of the work that I do and the topics that are of greatest interest to me (structures of power which shape the material/political conditions in which people live, especially as related to race in the United States), I believe it is imperative that serious discussions about these topics happen in as many places as possible with as many people as possible. And I mean discussions, not me lecturing the world about what I think all of our problems are as I stand on a huge soap box. I think it's important for folks to talk about these things together. At least in this country, our public discussions about race that get media coverage are often superficial at best and deeply problematic at worst. I want to do whatever little bit I can to change that. And that means doing different kinds of writing besides the traditional academic articles or books.

So keeping this blog alive is important to me because it's good training. It helps me to keep writing in a not so formally academic voice. And who knows, maybe some folks will read some of the things I post and have a discussion with a friend or coworker about them. And maybe some good discussions will be had.

That's the hope anyway.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A new home, a new chapter: Leaving an experience behind while bringing the feeling forward

So it's been a big week for me. Over the past eight days I moved out of my parents' house (I don't have to pretend to call it my home anymore; it's their house) and got my own apartment, on my own, in Ithaca, New York. This is not a unique point on the spectrum of human experiences, so I don't think it would surprise anyone to read that I am both excited and tentative about this new chapter of my life.

Of course, the reason for the location is that I am beginning graduate studies in English at Cornell University this week. There is only one way I feel about this: excited! I look forward to the challenges ahead as I strive to continue the work that I do and learn how to do it better. I look forward to learning how to be a more effective scholar, and how to execute the skills necessary to succeed as an academic. I look forward to learning just how much  have to learn and to realizing even more saliently than I see now how little I really know. I look forward to meeting new people whose interests intersect with my own, and people whose interests don't. I look forward to carrying my formative stories from SUNY Geneseo with me across the Cornell campus, and adding to but not overwriting these stories.

Well that brings me to one of the less than spectacular things about the move: as excited as I am for Cornell, it does feel strange not being in Geneseo. I've written enough gushing facebook statuses and had enough conversations with folks both within and outside the school about how much I freakin' love that place, so I won't go all-out here. But I'm going to miss that community. Not in the sense that I won't be able to enjoy where I am and treasure the present moment -- I fully understand that I am at the moment where I ought to be -- but I will miss Geneseo in the sense that even though I know it is healthy for me to grow and move physically away from it, my identity is still very much connected to it. Geneseo was my home for four years. And I mean that. During summer vacations I would intentionally avoid saying I was "home," because I honestly did not think of the place where I grew up as such. By the time I was ready to go away to school, I had really begun to think of my martial arts school as my home on long island, and after a year at Geneseo that became my home throughout the academic year. So yeah, I'm a little homesick.

And there it is too, the dojo, the place I feel most at home. For 16 years --that's 73% of my life on earth! -- I've trained at the Kempo Martial Arts Dojo of Holbrook. I started assisting classes 11 years ago. I've been an instructor teaching classes on my own for 7 years. There is absolutely nothing on this earth that has had a larger impact on my life and on who I am today than my time training in White Tiger Kempo. And by training I mean living, breathing, eating, sleeping, and thinking Kempo. I mean being Kempo. Training has reached a point where for me it is a way of being in the world. As I wrote in my last black belt essay, I don't do martial arts, I am a martial artist. And so it is difficult to leave this time around. It's different from going to Geneseo. Four years ago I knew that I would be coming back to the island every summer and so my training would continue sporadically but predictably for the next four years. And like clockwork, for four years, late May would roll around and I would be back in the dojo, seven days a week (usually training 5 and teaching 2). But this is different. This move is much more permanent. My Cornell fellowship thankfully supplies summer funding, and because I'm leasing an apartment I am contractually attached to my place of residence for 12 -- as opposed to 9 -- months. This means no more spending 3 and a half months every summer training at the dojo. This means a week or two here and there. I cannot even conceptualize that yet. I have no idea how I will deal with this part of the new chapter in my life. I know I will continue to train in the martial arts. I know I will always be a martial artist. I know I will always be true to my Kempo roots. I know I will always remember the instructors who cultivated me and work to honor them in my own training. But I don't know yet how I will deal with not physically being in that dojo. I know I will always be part of the family, but I don't know how often I will see my Kempo brothers and sisters. And that's tough.

On the topic of family, I have to also mention my Geneseo family (we literally referred to our end-of-semester gatherings as "family dinners"). I love all of them so much, and they have each been so important to my life, teaching me, helping me, guiding me, laughing with and at me, calling me out on my bullshit, listening to me, encouraging me, and above all else, letting me be me. I am eternally thankful to all of them for that (I don't care how trite that expression sounds). I know we're all moving on to new chapters of our lives in new places (and some returning to old places), and I am happy for everyone's growth and successes, and I wish for the best for everyone in the future. But like my feeling about Geneseo as a whole community, even though I know it's healthy and natural for us to all be setting out on new paths, I will still miss the old dynamic.

But as Sarah reminded me, I'm not leaving anyone behind. I carry all these people with me, along with all of the other folks that touched my life in numerous ways be it by playing in a shitty band for 3 weeks in high school, getting lost in New Orleans, mentoring me through academic and personal crises, being there to learn with me how to do work inside of human relationships, or working on the school newspaper with me for 3 or 4 years at Geneseo. Yeah yeah yeah, cliche cliche cliche you've heard all this before and I'm sounding way too sentimental and repetitious. While obviously self-conscious of this, I don't care enough to not post it =P

But again, to be clear, I am beyond excited for this next step. I am already learning to love Cornell and the city of Ithaca one small piece at a time (though I wish the Africana Center wasn't so far away on the northernmost edge of campus...). I feel closer to being a professional, and it feels good. And I cannot express how great it feels to have my own space. After a lifetime in a space crawling with toxicity (not only toxicity, as distance and age is teaching me, but certainly corrosive toxicity nonetheless), it is wonderful to nurture my own space. I will strive to make it a space in which I can be most able to do the work I want to do to continue to shape spaces and clean toxicity elsewhere as well, wherever I can and with whomever I can.

So while I will treasure all of my experiences and the family I found throughout my story thus far, for now I will enjoy making my new home and putting pen to paper for a new chapter. 

*          *          *

The old ones speak of winter
The young ones praise the sun
And time just slips away

Running into nowhere
Turning like a wheel
And a year becomes a day

Whenever we dream
That's when we fly
So here is a dream
For just you and I

We'll find the Sacred Heart
Somewhere bleeding in the night
Look for the light
And find the Sacred Heart

Here we see the wizard
Staring through the glass
And he's pointing right at you

You can see tomorrow
The answer and the lie
And the things you've got to do

Oh, sometimes you never fall
And ah - You're the lucky one
But oh - Sometimes you want it all
You've got to reach for the sun

And find the Sacred Heart
Somewhere bleeding in the night
Oh look to the light

You fight to kill the dragon
And bargain with the beast
And sail into a sign

You run along the rainbow
And never leave the ground
And still you don't know why

Whenever you dream
You're holding the key
It opens the door
To let you be free

And find the Sacred Heart
Somewhere bleeding in the night
Run for the light
And you'll find the Sacred Heart

A shout comes from the wizard
The sky begins to crack
And he's looking right at you - Quick
Run along the rainbow
Before it turns to black - Attack