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



Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Injuries and my fears of aging

Yes, this is another blog post following a very prolonged gap. Yes, I changed the name of the blog to something more reflective of the general range of topics about which I've been writing. Moving on.

So in the past few weeks, I've had a chunk of my lip ripped nearly off and fixed with stitches (now it's fixed and all that's left as evidence is an irregular spot on the inside of my lip and a slightly loose tooth which my dentist says may die at literally any random time), broken a finger, and apparently had an impact on my knee which caused a little pocket of fluid to swell up along w/the regular bruising. Yes I'm a martial artist, but only one of those three was because of martial arts. The other two were from basketball. Though my Sensei will continue to say all of them are from the latter. Two out of three injuries not being from my lifestyle of electing to get punched in the face is enough irony for me.

But anyway, I've been thinking about my body and aging as I deal with this succession of injuries which each wind up having effects on my ability to engage in regular physical activities in ways disproportionate to their external appearance. Seriously, the bump on my knee has a circumference about the size of a nickle, but the pain after going to class at the dojo last night and playing basketball tonight was unbelievable. And that's saying something coming from me. I think I have a pretty high pain tolerance, and folks who know me know that I am totally that guy who never admits to being hurt or needing medical assistance (much to the chagrin of a few of my close friends -- sorry!).

Ok, back to my body and aging. I hate being physically unable to train the way I normally do when at the dojo. It makes me angry, upset, and when it lasts longer than one single day, it makes me kind of depressed (in the colloquial sense, not the clinical sense).
After my four years at Geneseo, most people know me as an intellectually-oriented individual, someone who spends most of his time working with his mind. And that's true, in a sense. I do identify that way -- I am, after all, on a path to hopefully have a career in academia. 

But I'm also a martial artist. That should make it obvious that I also identify strongly with my physicality as well as my intellectual inclinations. While training and exercise eclipses a bit during the academic year because of just how time-consuming my academic life is, I still work hard to keep myself active and training.

And you know what? I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the fact that I can keep my everyday resting heart rate hovering down around 45. I'm proud of the fact that, while I am an absolute failure at pretty much every sport I've ever tried, I still pass as an athlete of sorts. And I'm proud (evidently proud enough to tout my own horn in a blog post! hahaha) because I know I work hard (not to disavow luck -- I was blessed with a fast metabolism and other genetic factors that help out, as well as others that don't). Being proud of those kinds of things is part of my sense of identity. Part of me sense of self is my self-knowledge of my body's capabilities and a personality trait of refusing to accept apparent limitations (except for when my fears of heights or deep water factor in!). I relish in my martial arts training for many reasons -- martial arts has influenced literally every dynamic of my persona (that's a future blog bost). But one of those reasons is the pure physicality of it.

So that brings me back to the topic of injuries. I get a ton of bumps and bruises and there's always a part of my body that's sore -- to the point where I honestly answer "I don't know" when people ask me where some bruise or bump came from or why my legs or shoulders or whatever hurt. But rarely do these things impede my capacity to train at the level of intensity at which I like to train. When something happens that does impede me, however, I become very upset. And like I said, I become kind of depressed. I know it's not a unique feeling. A ton of people, within and outside the world of martial arts, have felt that kind of depression when you realize your body won't do something it usually has no problem doing. I am lucky beyond belief that I have never had such an injury last permanently and still enjoy the privilege of being able-bodied. But again, I know tons of people have had that temporary state where they can't quite perform the way they usual do.

I don't know about you, but for me, this depression at having my body limited by injury gets me thinking about the prospect of aging. Honestly, I am afraid to age. Not because I'm afraid of living on my own. Not because I'm afraid of trying to find a job. Not because I'm afraid of adult responsibilities. But because I'm afraid of what's going to happen to my body as I age, especially because at some point the effects of aging are outside of our control! (Don't get me started on my control issues!) The day will come when I can't run as fast, fight for as long, or get hit as hard as I can now. I already feel I'm getting older as I wake up each morning knowing whether it will be a "good" day or a "bad" day for my wrists (the difference being measured most accurately by my discomfort in the high plank position). I can tell that I'll have arthritis in my hands at some point (I've broken, sprained, or severely jammed 9 out of 10 fingers).

This stuff scares the crap out of me! Like I said, I'm somewhat mentally prepared (I think) for bills, jobs, and responsibilities. I am not at all mentally prepared for my body to age.

I know this has been a very self-centered post. All about me and my feelings. But I'm curious. How do any of (the two or three of) you who read this feel about your body aging, and more importantly, about the effects of that aging process being at some point outside of your control?       


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Planting seeds of change

I haven't written a post in quite a while, I know. It's not like there hasn't been anything happening. Last time I checked, it was still an election year. But...well, I'm not going to go on about why I haven't written in a while. Instead, I'll say that I was going to write a post about the Daniel Tosh rape joke incident. But after writing on quite a few facebook threads and posting a link to this great article, I instead want to turn to a particular retort I heard repeated throughout these conversations, one which I personally hear time and again because of the kind of work I strive to do as a civically engaged academic.

"There will always be people whose minds you can't change." (or some variation)

This is true. And it can sometimes be depressing. I know I get discouraged when after a 45 minute conversation my interlocutor disparages me for thinking I can change anything when most people aren't rational and consensus is an impossibility. But there are a few things I take refuge in during these moments. For example, there are the facts of history. You probably know this famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King jr.:

"When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Now, I may have a slightly different interpretation of this passage from King's. Unfortunately, I cannot ask him. But for me, the "creative force" which directs the arc of the moral universe towards justice is human effort. And I believe this is the case whenever I look at the history of my own country. There was a time when people thought it was acceptable to have a legal form of racial slavery. There was a time when people thought it was unacceptable for women to vote. There was a time when people thought it was acceptable for a teacher to inflict corporal punishment* on their students. But we grew up. Or, to be more accurate, people did the necessary work of actively changing others' minds so that laws, customs, social scripts, and norms would change, so that the arc of history would align with arc of the moral universe.

And this happens slowly, gradually. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was made possible by the work of abolitionists and civil rights advocates (both famous and not so famous) in the nineteenth century, who in turn had at their disposal texts and ideas much older than themselves. We don't always get to see the immediate effects of our efforts, but that doesn't change the fact that we are part of a larger wave of activity reverberating in the arc of history.

That's not to say that those of us who want to see social, political, economic, and cultural conditions change for the better can sit back and rest assured that the arc will bend because there is a force larger than ourselves. The movement initiated by the actions of those who wish to change conditions can be greater than the sum of its parts, but it does not exist without those parts.

So we continue to encourage conversation, register voters, write articles and books, draft and sign petitions, call and write our representatives, and help out in any way we can. Not because we think we can change everyone's mind, but because we think that we can plant a seed in everyone's mind. (Credit goes to a good friend of mine for this metaphor. He in turn got it from someone else, and it actually almost exactly resembles Jesus' parable of the sower in the New Testament). That seed may be nourished and grow, it may remain dormant for years until spurred to growth by a significant event, it may never grow. All we can do is plant seeds and do what we can to create a nourishing environment once those seeds of change are planted. Because some will grow. And once a few start growing, others feed off their strength. Eventually, politicians, teachers, and court justices begin to grow. And then change in cultural attitude becomes change in law. (Note that this linear progression may be a nice image, but obviously over-simplifies things) (Also note: this is why it is in fact a big fucking deal that President Obama voiced his support for same-sex marriage. No, he hasn't actually legalized it on the federal level yet, but his attitude changing is a big, big step)

So I fully acknowledge that as I continue to engage in conversations and write about issues of social justice and cultural scripts I will never be able to change everyone's mind. Such a goal is impossible to achieve. But as a very important professor and mentor said in class one day (and I will NEVER forget this): "Just because a goal is impossible to achieve, that does not excuse one from the responsibility of trying to achieve it."

That quote, along with that repackaging of the parable of the sower and a knowledge of the long process of social change in the United States keeps me focused and keeps me determined to continue the work that I do. I hope to pass these mantras on to others who may feel depressed or discouraged that they'll never be able to change everything they want to change. We may not see it now, or even ever in our lifetime. But so long as people keep doing the work, the arc of history will bend towards Justice.  

*Note: When I originally wrote this, I was under the belief that corporal punishment had been outlawed in all 50 states in the US. I thank my friend Steven for bringing my error to my attention. Corporal punishment is in fact still legal in 19 states.

Monday, June 25, 2012

When some folks get more votes than others, that's not democracy

As expected, the Supreme Court declined to take another look at its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. You can (and should) read about the decision here to get some information on why this case is back in the news today.

I've already written on the case in an op-ed in The Lamron (I swear I didn't write it as one long paragraph! For some reason it shows up with a couple of kinks online...) when the decision was first made two years ago, so I won't re-hash that. Rather, I want to make one small, quick point.

In a country where how one spends one's money is equal to an expression of free speech, economic inequality is in fact antithetical to the very core of democracy itself. And by extension, I believe we can see that capitalism and democracy do not in fact conceptually fit together as nicely as they seem to.

Let's consider. As citizens of a democratic republic, we each have the right to have our voice heard and opinion counted, and no one of us has a voice that counts more than another voice. Since we are all equal citizens, we all ought to have equal say in political discourse. One citizen, one vote. Right?

But what happens when we consider influential political speech other than votes? What happens when we consider the fact that monetary contributions to campaigns and advertisements are forms of political "speech" insofar as each dollar sent to a political campaign is an expression of support for that campaign? I think we get a picture where a dollar spent on politics is a kind of vote.

And the more I think about it, this analogy between dollars spent and votes cast isn't so strange. I mean, we live in a kind of capitalist economic structure in which consumers vote on which products they want to survive and which ones they want to let die out with their dollars that they spend or don't spend. This is the theory behind boycotts. If a business makes use of practices which consumers find unacceptable, consumers can elect to stop spending money on that business, thus putting pressure on the business to change its policies or die out. That's voting. Consumers are saying that "We don't approve of you, so we're going to vote for your competitor by spending our money there/on their product instead."

But another fact of a capitalist economic structure is economic inequality among all of the members of the society which it organizes. So some people have more dollars than others. But if dollars are in very real ways equivalent to votes when it comes to both the commercial market and the political arena, then one result of capitalism is that some folks get more votes than others. But a central tenet of democracy is equal citizenship merits equal voting efficacy. That seems like a bit of a contradiction to me. How can some people get more votes than others and we still call it a democracy? How can the opinion of a huge corporation matter more than the opinions of thousands of individual citizens insofar as its opinion carries more weight because it's expressed by more money contributed to political campaigns and we still call that a democracy?

I don't think we can unless we admit that the tenet that in a democracy all people are equal citizens deserving of equal say in their government is a sham. Unless we admit that some people/organizations matter more than others -- not because they're more educated, intelligent, or informed, but simply because they have more money -- we cannot continue to call this a true democracy.

Either we admit our hypocrisy or we admit our mistake and SCOTUS reconsiders and reverses the Citizens United decision. But right now, we exist as a country of conceptual contradictions so long as this decision remains validated.   


Monday, June 18, 2012

Real Americans taking their country back: the Tea Party, heckling, and our black President

In a CNN article headlined "Obama interrupted: Disrespectful or latest in 'era of incivility'?" Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, is paraphrased near the text's conclusion: "But as the nation's first black president, the nature of Obama's heckling often feels as if there is something else lurking beneath the surface."

Ya think?

In an op-ed on the same site, Dean Obeidallah comes closer to calling it out: "But this is all not about Munro -- he is just a small cog in the right's campaign to diminish the legitimacy of Obama's presidency. I'm not talking about people disagreeing with policies. I mean specifically the campaign to paint Barack Obama as less than American -- as an "other"--as someone whose presidency is not entitled to the same respect as that of the presidents who came before him."

But Obeidallah doesn't actually explicitly say it's because President Obama is black.

Well, I'm going to: All of the heckling, all of the "take our country back" and "real American" rhetoric spouted at Tea Party rallies, all of the disregard for traditional decorum, all of the blatant disrespect we see aimed at the President of the United States these days is at least somewhat attributable to the fact that he is black. Give him a different name and white skin and change nothing else - I'm talking the same policies, the same ideas, the same resume, the same oratory skills -- and we wouldn't be talking about a reporter interrupting a statement on policy, a Representative interrupting a State of the Union address, a President of the United States being asked to produce a birth certificate to prove his citizenship like an enslaved person being asked to produce his note of permission to travel by a random white person to prove he wasn't a runaway fugitive, or people who go to rallies with signs like these:  
From before he even took office, Obama has been attacked by racist rhetoric deeply embedded into the culture of the United States. I remember a campaign stop by Senator McCain in 2008 when a woman grabbed the microphone and voiced her concerns about Obama being a Muslim. McCain, being the class act he is, took the microphone away and immediately corrected the woman's ignorance, refusing to bring it into his campaign (something Mitt Romney won't do re: Donald Trump  and his birther craziness, by the way). But despite his best intentions, the language he used to rebuke her statement is troubling. McCain's counter to the woman was to tell her that Obama is " a good family man." WHAT?! How the hell is that diametrically opposed to being a Muslim?

Because the language of racism, like the language of oppression and privilege in general in this country, is coded. Kind of like how "family values" actually means "we oppose same-sex marriage," "Muslim" apparently signifies something un-American, while being "a good family man" brings you back into that category of "real Americans" so central to so many of Sarah Palin's comments on the campaign trail back in 08 and subsequently so central to Tea Party rallies around the country in the coming years.

As the Tea Party grew, all those (very white -- though not exclusively white. I'm not in the business of denying facts: there are non-white folks who identify with the Tea Party movement) "real Americans" in the movement embraced the rhetoric of "Take our country back!" Well, from whom? Who stole the country? Oh, the black man sitting in the POTUS seat.

And before you scream at me for simply playing the race card and tell me that they want to take the country back from a President who is driving up the deficit and spending at historic rates and that his left-leaning policies make him un-American, tell me: Where were all these folks when President Bush was in office? You know, the guy who increased spending at a rate much higher than Obama has done, started the endless War on Terror, and enacted many of the very policies which contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession? I know, I know. The left did a very good job of attacking Bush for basically anything and everything he did while in office. But nobody asked him to prove he was a citizen. And while an Iraqi journalist did in fact throw a shoe at him, nobody ever interrupted his press statements, let alone his State of the Union addresses. And while people called him an idiot, nobody questioned that he was an American idiot, as opposed to a village idiot from Kenya.

Also, let's consider that these two strands of rhetoric -- "real Americans" and "taking our country back" -- were perhaps at their strongest at one particularly racially-charged moment in our history: the American Civil War and Reconstruction. In Race and Reunion, Yale history professor David Blight writes about southerners who called on "the real Americans" to take their homes/local governments [or country, sometimes] back from emancipated black people and northern agitators. It is no coincidence that in the moment when the country elects a black president, these strands of rhetoric have suddenly become so powerful again.

It might seem kind of crazy how without skipping a beat I moved from heckling to the Tea Party, but I don't think the two are really disconnected. We are anything but a post-racial society, and we're seeing that now as the country copes with a President who happens to be black. There is something in our cultural scripts which allows us to read black people as less than legitimate, as having to prove their value/efficacy/agency/citizenship/sincerity with some kind of outside sources before we view them as true brothers and sisters. Like how a slave narrative in the nineteenth century needed a preface by an outside source to legitimize the story within before readers would believe it, we are still not at a place in history where we can all see black Americans as full citizens in their own right without a bit of skepticism. And while it is true that racism has been so entrenched in the history of the United States -- essential to its founding, even -- and while it is true that we have never actually had a national discussion of race that was totally honest and open (not that I know of, at least), and while it is true that racism knows no single political party, I have to point out that these strands of rhetoric and disrespectful behaviors are coming overwhelmingly from the right. And that's not just because there's a D after Obama's name.

So what's my point? I don't want to be misconstrued, because I know in my anger (it is impossible for me to write dispassionately about stuff like this) I have probably stated a couple of things in more absolute terms than I should have. As a quick summation, then:

I truly believe that the blatant disrespect we see for the current President in the form of heckling and breaches of decorum is parallel to the rise in the "real Americans" and "take our country back" strands of rhetoric central to the Tea Party, and that both of these dimensions are so strongly a part of our national conversation at least partially because President Obama happens to be black. And I think that is unacceptable. And so I want to say that we have to nullify any and all attempts to construe Obama's presidency as a signification of a post-racial stage in our history, and continue to educate ourselves and each other of these kinds of cultural scripts and the historical precedents for them so that perhaps we can get past them one day. We have to keep talking, honestly talking. We have to recognize that where we are is not the Ideal set as the goal of our country to be a more perfect Union, and we have to do what is necessary to reach that ideal.   

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In a time of conflict, returning to the beauty of Jean Toomer's Cane

While I don't wish to write out certain details of family life in a blog, I do want to talk about what happens when conflict persuades us to return to literature.

In my current case, conflict between other members of my immediate family has left me in an awkward position where I am asked to be a communicative link between non-speaking parties, a receiver of stories and emotional baggage, and a validation of an individual's self-perceptions. This has left me feeling boxed into a position I didn't ask to be in and I find myself resenting the requests to listen to someone else's stories of pain and disappointment, especially when I have to perform a forgetting of a painful past in order to offer the self-validation this individual is looking for.

So yesterday I picked up my copy of Jean Toomer's Cane and re-read the short story/play "Kabnis" that closes the work. While there are numerous ways to interpret the story -- for example, there is a good argument that it can be read as an autobiographical account of Toomer's own internal struggle to write --I wanted to return to the story because of how directly it investigates the dimensions of giving and receiving stories.

Two of the main characters, Kabnis and Lewis, are northern black men who have come south and are learning from the southern black people with whom they live and work about their lives and experiences in the red soil of Georgia. At one point in the story, Kabnis runs away when he cannot handle the stories of violence anymore, and at another, Lewis "plunges through the workshop and into the night" when he can no longer hold the pain he sees in Kabnis and his friends, even though he thought he could.

Are they cowards for running away? Is Lewis foolish to have thought he could hold so much pain from so many people? What happens when we can't hold stories anymore?

Of course, as I read and though about these questions, I realized Kabnis and especially Lewis were in positions where they seemed to be executing a lot of their own agency in selecting to receive these stories. So I then recalled a novel in which a character has stories thrust on him when he doesn't want to hold them. In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, the protagonist Milkman on multiple occasions has thrust on him stories about his family's past. In one case, he punches his father for hitting his mother and his father replies by confronting him with a story and the declaration that "you better have knowledge behind that fist" before you throw it next. The story which Milkman receives here is too much for him, and completely reconfigures his perception of his mother. Later in the novel, he hears an account of the same story from his mother, and the details are completely different. Milkman is overwhelmed by these stories, among others, but instead of running away he runs towards his past, to learn more.

Is Milkman more noble than Kabnis and Lewis? How does he transform a lack of agency into a presence? When one hears a story which is itself part of something larger, does one have a duty to pursue the larger story?

As I think about these questions, I find myself questioning my own resentment of the requests of this individual for me to hear her stories and validate her perspective in a conflict in which I believe she was very much at fault. Perhaps I should have knowledge behind the emotional fist of my resentment. Perhaps I have a duty to listen even if I don't want to, and perhaps I have a duty to seek the bigger story.

But what happens when I am a part of the story? And what happens when the validation being sought requires me to forget my own subjective perception of the details of the story?

It's easy for me to take refuge in my own righteousness, to remember the ugly which contradicts the validation being sought, and to resent the request to listen. It's easy to refuse to see the complexity and the beauty -- yes, the beauty -- of struggles between perspectives. There is one passage in "Kabnis" that I find particularly moving every time I read it:

"Kabnis is about to shake his fists heavenward. He looks up, and the night's beauty strikes him dumb. He falls to his knees. Sharp stones cut through his thin pajamas. The shock sends a shiver over him. He quivers. Tears mist his eyes. He writhes."

The mixture of beauty and pain in this passage so poignantly captures the complexity of the human experience that every time I read it I'm forced to reassess my own resentments and enshrinements of other human beings.

So I didn't really get any answers in returning to Cane and thinking again about Song of Solomon. But I did do the necessary re-thinking of my position and am now asking myself important questions about what it means to be part of a story that I hear being mis-remembered, when that mis-remembering is necessary for the emotional well-being of another individual. This is not to say I have lost sight of right and wrong, good and bad. There are certainly still things in these stories that were wrong or right, and there are better or worse things I can do in response to hearing them. But the point is that these moral "opposites" may not be so separable, kind of like the pain and beauty of being confronted with the star-lit night sky as your knees are scarred by sharp stone.


Friday, June 8, 2012

On the death of Ray Bradbury, reflecting on why academics might read me more as an "activist" than a scholar

When I heard that Ray Bradbury died, my first feeling was surprise. My second was gratitude.

As far as I can remember, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was the first piece of dystopian literature that I read and was really enveloped by. Actually, the book terrified me. Not just the scenes where the protagonist burned another man alive or was hunted down by a mechanical bloodhound, but things like the earpieces and walls that functioned like television screens. And of course the book-burning.

But that fear I felt ignited (pardon the diction -- I couldn't resist) a passion for thinking about literature in more tangible terms. Rather than just think about how literature "spoke to the (psychological or universal) human condition" or other very general ideas, I began to think about how fiction related to the real world and gave us tools for thinking about our real world, maybe even tools for brainstorming ways to improve our literal human condition.

(To be more specific -- see what I did there? -- rather than just think about what it means in general for people to read less and for the entertainment industry to grow more, I wanted to talk about strategies for teaching children about reading in order to promote an enjoyment in literature and motivation to read as opposed to just watch or listen. That's the extra step: from the general concepts i.e. lack of reading books leads to less contextualized knowledge and an intellectually lazy populace to the more specific what can we actually do to prevent this?)

My English teacher at the time -- Mr. Boyle -- noted my interest in the book and how motivated I was by it, and he told me to read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. That is still one of my two favorite books that I've ever read. Like Fahrenheit 451, Orwell's novel scared me -- and again, not only during the scenes when the protagonist is being beaten or having his face attacked by rats, but in the moments when the reader can't tell if Julia is working for the Party or not, or when newspaper accounts of historical events are destroyed as narratives change. Again I wanted to ask questions about how what I was seeing in my country at the time I read the novel could be read in conjunction with Orwell's novel, and what could we learn from this? What could we learn about the War on Terror while thinking about the Two Minutes Hate or Emanuel Goldstein?

I went on to also read Thomas More's Utopia and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World before graduating high school, and took a class on dystopian literature during my freshman year of college. Since then, my literary interests have changed in terms of the primary content of the literature I read -- I'm a graduate student specializing in African American Literature and American Studies (at the moment at least; this, of course, could change) -- but my way of approaching literature remains profoundly influenced by my experiences with dystopian fiction which was really initiated by Bradbury's novel.

For me, the link between literature and politics (defined broadly: I'm one of those "everything is political in some way" people) is incredibly strong and I completely reject the premise that a work of literature is somehow a special autonomous cultural production which contains all of its meaning within itself. I approach literary works as pieces of a larger puzzle. I'm honestly not super interested in the question of "what does a piece of literature mean?" Yes, some interpretations are stronger (i.e. have more merit) than others based on evidence, but really, I find the argumentation about what the "correct" interpretation of a piece of literature is to be dull and boring. I'd rather ask the question (and credit goes to one of my Geneseo professors, Beth McCoy, for this formulation), "What happens when we read x that way?" Or "What does that reading do for us/what can we do with that reading?"

Ultimately, I'm interested in the world which created the literature, not the world the literature creates (not that these are neatly distinguishable or even categorically separate because of the special relationship of origins that they are wrapped into). I don't want to approach a piece of literature merely asking what it "means." I want to ask what it can do.

That doesn't mean I can't appreciate a piece of literature as an aesthetic object. Indeed, I am moved almost to tears by the beauty of the passage in Moby-Dick when Ahab laments what he's done to his family by being away at sea all the time. That image of his one tear dropping into the vast ocean is tragically beautiful and emotionally moving. And when I read Toni Morrison's description of the scene in Home when some men recall a boy killing his own father because the two had been forced to fight to the death, I weep with the boy in the text's memory as his father tells him -- implores him to kill him. And that is valuable and necessary. As William Carlos Williams reminds us: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

So it is not a matter of completely abandoning thinking about literature as aesthetic object. It is a matter of remembering that what matters is matter. Literature can help us to rethink our own material conditions and give us tools to reconfigure them. We can read literature alongside our current political and economic situations in order to better understand them and perhaps even change them. Literature can literally move us closer to the Just. And that's the kind of work that I want to do. If that makes me appear as an "activist" to some within the profession -- as I now know it does -- then so be it. I fundamentally reject the notion that activist and academic are mutually exclusive terms. Just read the literature.      

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On recall elections, pay equity and symbolic political performance

There are two major political performances taking place on the national stage today that I'm personally paying very close attention to: the recall election of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and a procedural vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act in the U.S. Senate. Both of these performances* are working on multiple levels in terms of what's at stake.

In the case of the recall election, the material conditions of the citizens and labor unions of Wisconsin are at stake, as is the political atmosphere of a potential swing state in the 2012 Presidential election. In the case of the equal pay legislation, there is the fact that passing the bill would open up structural pathways for women to actually fight for equal pay (as opposed to the grossly unjust 77 cents to the male dollar they currently make for doing the same work as their male counterparts) alongside the equally relevant fact that in all likelihood the vote will fail along completely partisan lines, thus introducing the question of motive for bringing this bill to vote in the first place.

If you know me you can pretty much guess that I support both the recall of Gov. Walker and the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Rather than talk about why I support the successful completion of the expressed goals of these performances, I'd like to talk a little bit about ways of reading these events of today as multi-level performances.

 First, let's talk about the recall election.

In the middle of the storm of media coverage and commentators that talk about the race in the language of general political values and principles, it is important to remember that ultimately this election is about the people of Wisconsin -- what they want and what their lives will be like. As a New Yorker, I want to see Walker out of his seat because I believe he is ideologically bankrupt (i.e. he's wrong), but ultimately I do not have to live in Wisconsin with Walker as my governor.

Having said that, though, on another level, this recall election is a national performance at the same time that it is a state one. While what Wisconsin voters want is not necessarily representative of what American voters across the country want -- and thus the results of this election do not necessarily indicate the national sentiment about labor unions -- the political discourse surrounding the election is of national concern, especially because Republican (and some Democratic) governors across the country are on a similar mission to Walker in terms of dismantling the power of unions.** If Walker retains his seat, this could be an opening for more aggressive action across the country by governors and mayors in dismantling union power. It could also mean that Wisconsin may not be the safely blue state it's been for the last five Presidential elections. Since being soundly beaten on the national stage in 2008 in the battle for voter enthusiasm and mobilization, conservatives have been growing stronger in mobilization. If Walker retains his seat, this could be an affirmation that the advantage the left had in 2008 could be overcome in this year's nation-wide election, which in turn could also mean that the anti-union sentiment expressed by Walker's administration could find a nest on the national level with a Republican president who may feel indebted to the interests that helped Walker keep his seat. And that would be felt by all.
 From one performance whose conclusion is still up in the air to another that has come to an end: The Paycheck Fairness Act failed today in the Senate.

But we knew that would happen, right? So why does carrying out the performance matter if there's already a foregone conclusion?

Because performances have symbolic as well as material impact (and the divide between the symbolic and the material is often much less clean that my language there suggests). While ideally the bill would have been passed and the material conditions of women in the U.S. economy would have been changed, the failure of the bill sends a loud and clear symbolic message about the platforms of our country's two major political parties.

Specifically, the GOP re-confirmed for us (as if we needed re-confirming) that at its most fundamental levels, their ideology is rooted in a commitment to the absolute sacrosanctness of property and business at the expense of any and everything else. In a letter to Senate leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups wrote: "The Paycheck Fairness Act would impose unprecedented government control over how employees are paid at even the nation's smallest employers."  In line with this criticism, many Republicans opposed the legislation because it would make it too easy for women to sue their employers and would welcome in an influx of frivolous lawsuits. Of course, when women still only make three-quarters of what their male counterparts make for doing the same work, I think these lawsuits that (hopefully!) would have come along would have been anything but frivolous.

Now, are the Democrats purely heroes in this? Well, since we're talking about a party of politicians, probably not. It's fairly clear that this was mostly a political move to set up a dialogue where Democrats could appeal to women voters by pointing to Republican obstruction of women's rights legislation. But I'd suggest that playing politics is not as evil as we make it out to me. Just because a performance is done for no reason other than to gain political capital, that does not mean the performance is disingenuous or worthy of vilification. Take this bill. Symbolically, it is clear that the Democrats have equal pay for equal work on their party platform and it is equally clear that Republicans only support equal pay for equal work secondarily to protecting the interests of business owners over their employees (cf. some strains of anti-union sentiment, by the way). That is important information.

So are the Democrats just trying to get votes from women? Maybe. But when you look at what this performance means, it's pretty clear that there is one party willing to put forward legislation that would improve the material conditions of segments of the population even when they're sure to fail because of opposition and one party that is willing to kill any legislation that would impede on current freedoms of business (to discriminate if they so choose).

People versus businesses. That's the symbolism. Continued entrenchment in old privileges for men (and whites -- but that's another entry) while bullshitting about freedom and equality as core values of our country versus real, tangible equality in actual material conditions. That's the "real." And they're totally tightly connected.      

*note: When I say something is a "performance," I do not at all mean to invoke negative connotations such as insincerity or fake-ness. I read most actions, events, and even texts through the lens of performance, simply because in communication there is usually an audience of some kind that needs to interpret the performance. I mean to use the term as a neutral descriptor, then, not as an adjective loaded with a value-judgment.

**Just a link to an interesting opinion piece on re: labor unions. Like big corporations, large unions need to be watched for abuses of power, but they absolutely cannot be destroyed or dismantled to th extent that Walker wants to dismantle them. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Because I need to stop yelling at my friends

So I created a blog. That's right, after all my displays of just how incompetent I am re: any and all computer-related tools and how amazed I am by the simplest things a computer can do (e.g. my "Oh my god did you guys know Microsoft Excel can do math for you?!" 2009), I am creating an electronic blog.

So why now? Well, I recently graduated from SUNY Geneseo and ended my tenure as a student journalist after four years working for the school's student newspaper (since 1922!), The Lamron. While primarily a news journalist for my first three years, I was also a fairly regular op-ed columnist. I viewed this as an opportunity to encourage the campus community to engage in productive and honest conversations about pertinent issues, primarily issues of race, identity-politics, ethics, and difference. At the same time, I would be dishonest to represent my role as a columnist as removed from personal desire; I got a lot of satisfaction out of being able to have my voice heard (or, errr -- read) across the campus every week I wrote a column. I got to synthesize my thoughts on events and issues which I found particularly pertinent into (usually) concise arguments which I could present to a public readership. WOW! That was very important for me as someone who reads EVERYTHING in terms of macro-politics and who also feels a need to constantly speak his observations and thoughts out loud.

But that changed when I graduated. No more Lamron, no more columns.

And honestly, I've felt stifled. I need political discourse. I wake up in the morning and eat my breakfast while watching CNN. And I talk to the television -- out loud -- during segments.

And sometimes I even started talking at people who weren't even arguing with me. I was out to dinner with Sarah and one of us (probably me) brought up politics and I started to basically argue against an imaginary opponent. It was an imaginary conversation inappropriate for the actual conversational space in which I was currently engaged, and frankly Sarah did not appreciate it.

So I obviously need an outlet.

Hopefully, this will be it.

And I'm looking forward to it. I won't have a word count like I would in a print newspaper (though I should probably act as if I do since brevity is a problem for me). I can embed links within my writing, which will make citation much easier (I think). There will be no deadlines, so if I'm having a particularly motivated week, I can write three or four posts, and then take a week off if I'm not feeling the writing bug bite. Not everything has to be an argument, either, which means I can share my more exploratory thoughts before they're well-crafted arguments (not that I ever published a column in The Lamron that was less than thought-out...right?).

So yeah, this seems like a good idea. At least for me. I do still hope someone reads it once in a while and maybe even some good conversations get started. Because, really, my motivation to engage in political discourse is ultimately a motivation which springs from a desire to make the world a better place in which to live. At heart, I am a seeker of capital J Justice. And I think blogging can be a small way to do a little bit of the work necessary to find it.