a bruised chest, a kitchen full of moths, a head full of dreams and a heart without direction.
Highlights of my most recent New York excursion:
- the High Line Park, an elevated urban oasis featuring native plants, views of Chelsea, and delicious popsicles. It also has its own blog. Who knew public space could be so hip?
- Dovekins show at the Living Room in the Lower East Side. Coastal worlds colliding in a well lit room with great acoustics!
- No traffic on the Fung Wah-both ways.
- Discovering that it is possible to make cake in a box using soda pop: just add 10oz soda to one package of cake mix and stick in the oven.
- Sleeping in an empty apartment and waking up to pouring rain.
- Running into four old friends unexpectedly on the street in the space of forty hours.
I am now a resident of Somerville, MA, the closest thing to Portland in the metro-Boston area, and I’ve traded college co-ops for inter-generational intercultural exchange. My current living situation involves folks who’ve lived decades longer than I and traveled miles farther than I have even thought to go. This morning I talked to a man who spent this medical internship in Puerto Rico in the early 1960’s, and had just returned from an eight-month stay in rural India. We were discussing death (he started the train of conversation by announcing he had found a way to obtain a free burial: donating his body to UMass Medical School).
He told me about his first experiences with corpses. There were three stories he chose to share. The first involved his encounter with the body tank at Yale Medical School. He informed me that at the time he was a student thre, they used to store the corpses, prior to dissection, in a giant pool of formaldehyde, like pickles in brine. All the bodies were roped together under their armpits and floated in a tank. When one was required for use, the tank operator would push a button and a crank would pull on the rope. “The corpses would bubble up out of the brine, bloop bloop bloop, as if raised from the dead!”
I told him he might be in one of those tanks if he donated his body to science. He replied that we might well be in there together!
The other stories were not quite as darkly comic and came from his experiences in Puerto Rico. The hospital situation he described to me sounded closer to what I had read in Paul Farmer’s and Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ ethnographies than my elementary school journey to PR. He confessed that he had once seen an intern kill a patient by accident, thinking she had a terminal heart condition when she had a routine cardiac ailment. Desperate, the man had injected her with potassium chloride. He also described the experience of having a young patient with cystic fibrosis stiffen in his arms, never to breathe again.
It was heavy conversation for 8:30am, and my elderly housemate said as much. The field doctor-turned-handyman excused himself, saying that he had to retrieve bread from a capoeira instructor’s house. He was sure we would discuss matters further in the future.
Tasks for this week: find a yoga studio, brew a new batch of kombucha, and continue work of the mural (pictures to come!).
In the airport I saw a billboard with the face of a woman of color wearing a headscarf and the words “I am powerful” in handwritten script. Unfortunately, such a statement was compromised by the caption below: “Women. The world’s largest untapped natural resource.”
I haven’t been so offended since I listened to one of the World Bank’s head honchos discuss my position in the “global elite” at the Reed College Graduation.
My mother said: “Well, I’ve been tapped.”
Having abandoned my foray into novel reading (I managed to get 25% of the way through House of Leaves before deciding that the literary claustrophobia and the sleeplessness were not worth the effort), I have once again turned to essays and artsy films for more intellectual fodder.
My friend has started making his own readers, typing and formatting essays he likes and then binding them into paperback volumes. I was able to get the most recent of his compilations, Affect?, while in Portland last week. The collection, which includes pieces by art collective Claire Fontaine, scholars Michael Hardt, Juan Martin Prada and David Graeber, examines the importance of affect in contemporary Western society. The pieces, all by radical thinkers, question the relationship between capitalism, emotion, and biopower in the age of postindustrial globalization and service-based personalized economic interaction. The power of affective resistance, for example a “caring strike,” to enact social change is intriguing to me, both as a feminist and as a person who positively values affection. Reading the collections has made me think critically about my own work in the service industry, and how significant it has been in reshaping my perceptions of attitude and affect. As a person who is female self-identified as well as a feminist, I am well aware of the greater amount of affective labor I am expected to perform. I have also long struggled with feelings regarding the relationship between desire and happiness —I find that the slogan of “liberating your desire” paradoxically serves to enforce the libidinal economy. As long as freedom and desire remain linked, freedom must necessarily be elsewhere: you cannot desire what you already have. Indeed, although the reappropriation of desire might be seen as resistance to the structures of consumer capitalism (which works on the consumer-subject through the manipulation of her desires), I would contend that because desire is so intimately associated with a lack it necessarily reinforces the conflictual subjectivity characteristic of neoliberal (post)modernity. The perpetual incompleteness of the subject becomes fetishized. Perhaps it is the non-desirous subject who is more dangerous to capital, one who has liberated not only her desires, but also herself from the state of being desirous, from needing to be desired.
Yet there is also the positive valuation of desire in radical affective politics, and that is the desire of the body. The form is seen to be somehow more authentic than the desire of the mind (even though it has been the most manipulated—witness the massive industrialization of pornography). Almost invariably, bodily desire is connected to sex, but this does not have to be the case. While both the sexual liberation and feminist movements have, historically, made the body a critical part of politics, to claim corporeal desire as revolutionary territory can occur outside the metaphorical “bedroom” as well. To “listen to one’s body” and let all sorts of sensory experiences be the vehicles of perception is seen as running counter to the hegemony of cognitive being-in-the-world. In this view, one might successfully engage in affective resistance through the re-appropriation of bodily affect: facial expressions, gestures, caresses, etc. In our increasingly virtual world of communication, such an affirmation of the physical would indeed be radical.
Of course, there are options other than re-appropriation. One might consider, as Claire Fontaine does, the possibility of a human strike. Yet is it really possible to do, or does one just assume a different mask? Tonight, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s experimental film Persona. The film examines the lives of two women during the Vietnam era, a time of significant social transformation in the West. Persona takes the concept of intersubjectivity quite seriously: the two women, a nurse and her patient, take on aspects of each others’ selves throughout the film, and eventually they begin to merge into one person.
The Latin persona, as I read in Marcel Mauss’ work on person and self, may mean “mask.” Mauss uses the concept of the persona to tie together his examples of societies in which the individual is conceived of as a personnage or role, with those in which the individual appears as a self (moi). Mauss employs ethnographic data from Zuñi Pueblo and Kwakwaka’wakw communities (wherein individuals perform as, and are considered and named as, reincarnations of their ancestors: in other words, one’s “self” is really the sum total of all one’s relations) as examples of the former type; Western European societies are considered as the latter. Imperial Rome exemplifies the transition between the personnage and the self because it is the origin of the persona as a concept. The Roman Senate, like the Kwakwaka’wakw secret societies, was also composed of individuals who bore the names and “images” of their ancestors. These images the Romans wore like masks. And, like masks, individuals would at times assume the name (praenomen, forename or cognomen, nickname) of ancestors to whom they were not related. The Roman Senate took action:
A senatus-consultus decision detemined (clearly there must have been some abuses) that one had no right to borrow and adorn oneself with any other forename of any other gens than one’s own. The cognomen followed a different historical course: it ended by confusing cognomen, the pseudonym that one might bear, with imago, the wax mask moulded upon the face, the imago of the dead ancestor kept in the wings of the aula of the family house (18).
In other words, the assumption of a role took on a political dimension, and became legislated. Yet it also came to mean, at least linguistically, the “true face of an individual.” As in the current day, the “content of one’s character” does not only refer to the lines one speaks in a play but also (and perhaps more commonly) to the moral fiber of one’s being. From abuses of persona we get the origin of the rights of personhood, and the beginnings of a moral person, according to Mauss (17-19). Mauss in this essay sticks to a progressive model:
From a simple masquerade to the mask, from a ‘role’ (personnage) to a
‘person’ (personne), to a name, to an individual; from the latter to a
being possessing metaphysical and moral value; from a moral consciousness to a sacred being; from the latter to a fundamental form of thought and action - the course is accomplished (22).
It is the idea of the self as a state of consciousness, Mauss argues, that belongs to the age of Reason. I think, therefore I am.
What does all this have to do with affect? How is it that one can produce effects through affective behavior, if the self is a state of consciousness? Well, from the self, we often tend to progress to the subject. And the subject, just like the personnage, is in a constant relational state.
In Bergman’s film, the two women whose selves merge are not relations, but they do share a bond of womanhood, of dissatisfaction with their destinies or roles in life. Yet whereas Alma, a nurse, talks to work out her problems, the other woman falls silent. In the beginning of the movie, Elizabet, a theater actress who suddenly becomes mute and is sent to hospital to convalesce, is confronted by her doctor regarding her condition:
Doctor: Don’t you think I understand?
The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being. In every waking moment, aware, alert. The tug of war…what you are with others and who you really are.
Suicide? Unthinkable. You don’t do things like that. But you can refuse to move and be silent. Then, at least, you’re not lying. You don’t have to play any roles…show any faces, make any false gestures.
Elizabet, naturally, does not reply. The doctor tells Elizabet to continue this strike until it becomes boring; after all, according to her, it is just another role the actress is playing. She suggests that Elizabet and Alma go to her seaside cottage, where they can be alone. From this point, the film centers solely on the two women and their interpersonal relationship. This consists of, for the most part, Alma talking and Elizabet looking at her, touching her, and listening to her. The more she talks, the more Alma reveals about herself and her relationship with desire, what she wants to do with her life, etc. Alma struggles between being the person she thinks she wants to be, and being the person she is: she complains that the relationship between her perceptions and her actions is inconsistent.
Elizabet says nothing.
At one point, entirely frustrated, Alma begs the other woman to say just one word.
Alma:I have to try not to get angry. You remain silent… I knew you would refuse. You can’t know how I feel…You’ve used me!
The two women get into a fight. Elizabet speaks her first words almost one hour into the film: “No, don’t do it!”
Alma is about to throw a pot of boiling water on her. She doesn’t, of course. Elizabet, after a moment, begins to smile, as if about to laugh. Alma retorts: “You always have your laughter.”
From that point on, the film becomes a little confusing. Elizabet’s husband arrives at the cottage and mistakes the nurse for the patient. He is wearing dark glasses, but there is no suggestion that he is blind. In the film’s climax, Alma confronts Elizabet about what she believes is her problem: a lack of affection, specifically for her son. Elizabet does not speak, though she shakes her head in refusal, as Alma describes how the other woman got her husband to impregnate her, and then decided she did not want the responsibility of motherhood, did not want to be “afraid of pain, afraid of dying, afraid of your swelling body.” The monologue is repeated again, with the camera focused on Alma the second time, Elizabet the first. I won’t give away what happens next, but suffice to say, the turning point of the movie is a refusal to conform to the demands of affective labor, both on the part of the caregiver-nurse, and on the part of the caregiver-mother.
What to make of this, when it is painted in such violence and cruelty? Bergman seems not to be convinced that a human strike could bring positive results. Desire gives way to emotion, which gives way to violent actions. Yet Elizabet’s refusal to speak (for any speech and gesture would be a lie) is what affects Alma so strongly. Rather than present her gestures and silence as emotional, Bergman paints the woman as ultimately imprisoned by her disaffectedness. She is unable to feel and love and thus unable to be herself…or even to fully become anybody else. The final word she speaks is an echo of Alma’s: “Nothing.”
If the human strike does not bring transformative results for Alma and Elizabet, it nevertheless provokes an interesting train of thought. This could be just as hopeful as it appears hopeless. One can refuse to care, or one can care differently. While caring has become trademarked as part of the conscious consumer industry, I cannot help but believe our emotional life retains the possibility, if not of independence, at least of aware existence and subsequent transformation. Maybe it is in the unconscious glance towards a lover or the impulse to reach out and brush a bug of a stranger that such affect is born. If we can continue to nurture the emotional and physical aspects of our beings-in-the-world so that our perceptions and our actions harmonize, then perhaps we can affect change.
After staying up way too late watching “Surf Nazis Must Die” and “Fallen Angels” back to back (perhaps a sacrilege?) in JP, I have a headache even a Bolivian pour-over won’t cure. I’m sitting in thinkingcup, the new Stumptown-only coffee bar and café, which opened in December 2010 right off the Boston Common . The feel is a little odd, as if the management were trying to please both the HSN-watching wife and coffee snob husband of the power-set whose high-rise luxury apartments extend to either side of the narrow but spacious location. There are an assortment of gourmet cupcakes for sale, and tasteful Spanish music is playing softly in the background.
The shop exemplifies Boston almost perfectly: knowledgeable about what’s hip and what’s quality, but bogged down by a duty to its customer base, many of whom seem to be eternally stuck in a fashion time-warp (black + peacoats = never out of style).
America, after all, still runs on Dunkin. The coffee selection, which featured a “full-bodied” Indonesian, a Kenyan reserve and the Bolivian I tried, is tasteful but not too bold, and they have good equipment for the pour-over bar. They were brewing Holler Mountain on drip, and I’m not sure what for the espresso.
On a slightly more serious note, the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan is another one of those far flung Pacific disasters I am struggling to wrap my mind around. With all the technology at our disposal to predict, analyze, and relay information about disasters, their magnitude remains unfathomable. Now facing serious risk of a nuclear meltdown, the residents of one of the world’s most populous (per square mile) and wealthy urbanized nations must struggle to survive in an uncertain future. This time, however, the destruction is caused not by war but a natural disaster.
How to rebuild in the aftermath of trauma, and how to go through life when crisis is the norm, is the subject of filmmaker Liza Johnson’s recent projects. I had the privilege to attend a lecture by the artist and view some of her work. More on that later. The speakers have started playing Coldplay, so I think it’s time for me to split.
- Currently reading: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and several books on icehouses.
- Recently completed: Moravaigne, by Blaise Cendrars; Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut; 1 loaf of seeded Irish soda bread, lentil soup, the purchase of a single-speed junk bike, and the acquisition of a classy haircut.
- Upcoming projects: restoring a Australian Aboriginal-inspired rainbow serpent mural I worked on in elementary school, with artist Margie Gibbons.
Also, I have finally seen Portlandia. And while it’s pretty damn right-on at times, it doesn’t really capture the true dreaminess of the place.
Jules Feiffer’s Map of the Lands Beyond, from The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Probably one of the best books ever written in the English language.
By way of introduction to the in-progress work Wretchedness and Enchantment, a Reader in Dialectical Utopianism. A short extract from Chapter One of Lewis Mumford’s The Story of Utopias (1922), available online from here:
UTOPIA has long been another name for the unreal and the impossible. We have set utopia over against the world. As a matter of fact, it is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us: the cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live. The more that men react upon their environment and make it over after a human pattern, the more continuously do they live in utopia; but when there is a breach between the world of affairs and the overworld of utopia, we become conscious of the part that the will-to-utopia has played in our lives, and we see our utopia as a separate reality….
What makes human history such an uncertain and fascinating story is that man lived in two worlds—the world within and the world without—and the world within men’s heads has undergone transformations which have disintegrated material things with the power and rapidity of radium. I shall take the liberty of calling this inner world our idolum (ido´-lum) or world of ideas. The word “ideas” is not used here precisely in the ordinary sense. I use it rather to stand for what the philosophers would call the subjective world, what the theologians would perhaps call the spiritual world; and I mean to include in it all the philosophies, fantasies, rationalizations, projections, images, and opinions in terms of which people pattern their behavior. This world of ideas, in the case of scientific truths, for example, sometimes has a rough correspondence with what people call the world; but it is important to note that it has contours of its own which are quite independent of the material environment.
Now the physical world is a definite, inescapable thing. Its limits are narrow and obvious. On occasion, if your impulse is sufficiently strong, you can leave the land for the sea, or go from a warm climate into a cool one; but you cannot cut yourself off from the physical environment without terminating your life. For good or ill, you must breathe air, eat food, drink water; and the penalties for refusing to meet these conditions are inexorable. Only a lunatic would refuse to recognize this physical environment; it is the substratum of our daily lives.
But if the physical environment is the earth, the world of ideas corresponds to the heavens. We sleep under the light of stars that have long since ceased to exist, and we pattern our behavior by ideas which have no reality as soon as we cease to credit them. Whilst it holds together this world of ideas—this idolum—is almost as sound, almost as real, almost as inescapable as the bricks of our houses or the asphalt beneath our feet. The “belief” that the world was flat was once upon a time more important than the “fact” that it was round; and that belief kept the sailors of the medieval world from wandering out of sight of land as effectively as would a string of gunboats or floating mines. An idea is a solid fact, a theory is a solid fact, a superstition is a solid fact as long as people continue to regulate their actions in terms of the idea, theory, or superstition; and it is none the less solid because it is conveyed as an image or a breath of sound.
It all depends on how you look at things. In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo encounters the cities of Illusions and Reality while traveling with Alec Bings (above) who teaches the boy about different points of view. The city of Illusions is a sparkling metropolis with streets paved with precious stones, but none of it is real. Reality, on the other hand, is invisible to Milo, even though every inhabitant of the city acts as those there were concrete walls and streets and buildings. They all go about their business with their heads down, not stopping to look up and dream of what the city could be—or to see what it really is. For this reason, they ceased to need the physical city. Reality and the physical world, in this case, are not coterminous. The world of ideas, the metaphysical, has become the physical in the city of Illusions, whereas Reality (perhaps a dystopia?) has done away with “the physical” altogether.
Today, there is a considerable amount of talk about hard and soft infrastructure in urban areas; about the physical makeup of our cities and the virtual fabric of applications and information that allows us to navigate them in the iWorld. For Mumford and Juster such things may have seemed pure fantasy, but they are part and parcel of the contemporary urban experience. How far have we come from Illusions and Reality, if we are sticking in our earbuds as soon as we get on the subway, and keeping our noses to the ground while the temperature in Phoenix keeps rising from the asphalt paving covering the desert?
Thanks to Orange Marmalade for the images.