Shutu Stays with You

Trigger warning: suicide, sexual violence

As a seven-year-old, one of the poems I loved reading and performing at elocution competitions was Rabindranath Tagore’s Puratan Vritto (The Old Slave). I do not know why it felt so easy to remember it, maybe because I realized irrespective of all the mechanical readings for the sake of memorizing, every time I reached the end of the poem, I had tears in my eyes and the process never felt monotonous or cumbersome. It felt cathartic. My mother would be surprised to see that the poem touched such a chord with me, and she would say, “You are a sensitive kid.”

The poem is about this old senile slave, who would not leave the master, even after repeated attempts of both the master and the mistress to drive him out of the house. Every time the master threw him out, he would return the next morning, with a smile on his face and a hookah for the master. Eventually, they give up and the master plans a pilgrimage to Vrindavan ( a small district in India), invariably with the old slave in tow. The mistress is doubtful about this arrangement, afraid that the old slave will not be able to take good care of the master, but the master convinces her otherwise. On reaching Vrindavan, the master contracts chicken pox ( the poem was written in the 19th century when chicken pox had no cure in India), and is forsaken by all his friends who had been traveling along; all except one, his old slave. He brings his master back to life, with his love, care, and affection, but contracts the contagious disease from his master, and succumbs to it. The master confides in the audience that after all the repeated attempts to get rid of him, he finally succeeds and how…

As Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj ends, I had the same feeling I would have while reading the last two lines of Puratan Vritto. If you have ever felt unwanted, unloved, invisible, or small you will know what I mean.

Growing up, I was a fat kid, a fat sensitive kid. From facing ostracization in school, being laughed at and ridiculed for my thinning hair which someone equated with a lizard’s tail in our neighborhood to having this horrific experience of going on a trip with my mom’s colleagues and being bullied and dragooned by their kids, the Shutu in me was howling inside my head as I watched the character on screen brought to life by the brilliant lead actor, Vikrant Massey.

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A Death in the Gunj tells a story in each frame. The first scene sets the tone of the movie as we see two men stowing a dead body in the boot of a blue ambassador that they are driving to Calcutta. Then the story unfolds in the flashback when we see Nandu, Bonnie, Mimi, and Tani, arrive at McCluskieganj in erstwhile Bihar to spend the New Years at their family home where O.P. and Anupama Bakshi, Nandu’s parents live. There is one other person who accompanies them, Shutu, Nandu’s maternal cousin, but from the very onset he is treated as the ‘other’ in the narrative. The family greets and hugs each other, while Shutu, a young, lanky shy boy, is asked to unload the boot and bring all the luggage inside.

The narrative establishes Shutu as this reticent, sensitive almost to the point of being vulnerable, young boy, still trying to cope with his father’s untimely demise, whose favorite words are eulogy, esoteric, and eclectic, and the only person he can relate to is Nandu and Bonnie Bakshi’s young daughter, Tani.

The director beautifully juxtaposes his shyness with the machismo of Vikram, Nandu’s friend, who is seen as someone continuously making fun of Shutu, challenge his masculinity, and belittle him on account of his physical weakness and emotional vulnerability. There is a scene in the movie where a friendly game of Kabbadi, a contact team sport,  in the backyard of the Bakshi’s, ends into an unequal scuffle between Vikram and Shutu, as Vikram mercilessly starts kicking and strangling Shutu to win the game.

Vikram as the quintessential alpha male, who is physically superior, who has a sexual relationship with the ‘foreigner’ Mimi but chooses to marry a Khasi girl from a wealthy royal family because women like Mimi, the ‘fallen women,’ are only meant to be made love to and not loved, as Anupama Bakshi opines in one of the scenes, establishes a world of scary polarities in the filmic narrative.

And to all these people, Shutu is the punching bag, the subject of their blames and disappointments, failures and shortcomings. This is beautifully captured in the scene where one day Tani goes missing and the entire family blames Shutu for the episode, because Tani usually follows him every where. But when they go searching for Tani in the forests, Shutu falls into a ditch, and Nandu leaves him behind in the wilderness and returns home without even, so much as sparing a thought for Shutu. I will never forget the look on Shutu’s face as he returns home that night, having rescued by the Bakshi’s servant, stands at the door of the Bakshi residence and looks at the rejoicing family having dinner inside, without him, having reunited with their daughter.

Perhaps it is Mimi, who drives Shutu towards the final resolution of the drama, as she ‘rapes’ the ‘girly’ Shutu (She tells him in one of the scenes that he is pretty like a girl), and leaves him to his fate.

The scene where, Shutu, filled with passion for Mimi, leaves Tani behind, asking her to keep searching for her lost puppy so that he could go riding with the seductive and misleading Mimi, establishes a brilliant dynamics between the puppy, Tani, and Shutu. The puppy sits dejected on the balcony as Tani forsakes him to run after her beloved Shutuda, and see him ride off with another woman, having tricked her. Heartbroken, she stands there with tears rolling down her eyes. The re-imagining of the age-old love triangle bears the testimony to a moving masterstroke from the director-artist.

That is the moment Shutu looses all, even himself.

That Shutu is a brilliant student, that he might be physically weaker than Nandu but every time beats him at chess, that he is so full of compassion, that irrespective of all their neglect, jibes, condescension, Shutu runs errands for them with a smile, that all he wants, needs, and desires is a little love and understanding from the world, runs as an undercurrent throughout the film.

There is a scene where Tani and Shutu are playing in the garden, and Tani notices that all the names, that of her mom, dad, Mimi, Vikram, are inscribed on several tree trunks populating their garden, but not that of Shutu’s, establishing the fact that they were childhood friends, and although Shutu belonged to the same group albeit he was the inconspicuous and ‘othered’ part of it.

The final scene has such a relaxed banality about it that the end comes as a surprise. O.P Bakshi is busy cleaning his old gun when Shutu expresses his desire to just learn how to hold it. The gun runs as a motif in the film, it appears in many a frame and also in one of Shutu’s nightmares. As O.P. Bakshi reluctantly tries to teach Shutu how to use it, he overpowers the old man and snatches it away from him. Meanwhile the entire family comes running to the spot and Shutu points the gun at Vikram, his biggest nemesis in the movie, soon realizing that probably he himself is his most formidable adversary, at least that is what years of neglect and ignominy in the hands of his own people, drives him to believe, something that he realizes he is too weak to resist. So he holds the barrel of the gun right under his chin and shoots himself.

The blood splatters on the nearest tree forming a sinister pattern.

Shutu finally does inscribe his name on a tree trunk.

Shutu says little in the movie but every fold on his forehead, every look in his eyes, every twitch of his body seems like an entry out of Sylvia Plath’s journal,

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

 

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The Origin of Madness : A Philosophical Review of the Film “In the Mouth of Madness”

Manipulated image from John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness

Do you ever wonder how people go from completely sane to wholly mad? Or, think about how each of us is equally exposed to the possibility of catching insanity every time we open ourselves to the outside world?

One of these answers can be found in the film In Mouth of Madness (1995) directed by John Carpenter. The film understands madness as “that thing [which is] messing with the church [values]”; “that thing that offers pain and suffering beyond human understanding.” Madness is an abstract being that “wasn’t here [in this material world] before l wrote it”, says the character Sutter Cane. The question is how this very abstract matter known as “madness” manifests itself into material form, and thus becomes viewable, spreadable, discussable, and perhaps “curable”.

Such a journey can be seen in the character John Trent, who has gone from a “sane” insurance investigator to a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Trent is one out of a number of people who show schizophrenic symptoms after reading Sutter Cane’s horror books, including the Hobb’s End Horror and In the Mouth of Madness.  Books that are known for their success in generating a kind of seed of “madness” in the mind of a “less stable reader”. These seeds range from “disorientation, memory loss, to severe paranoid reaction”. Trent’s case is significant in that it may offer a potential clue to the outbreak of mass murders and riots in the city, which are claimed to only involve those who read Cane’s book.

At this point, it is safe to say that “madness” made its way to be among us by finding representation. “Homecoming instrument (s)” the film calls it. I would say that its first representation is in the mind of Sutter Cane. Then it manages to move Cane to write about his encounter with “madness” in the form of books. These books then could be considered as the second form of representation of “madness”. This second representation is special in that it signifies the presence of “madness” in the material world. With Cane’s books, “madness” is now viewable, discussable and spreadable to each individual. It will keep spreading until it achieved its fullest form, Hegel would say.

The fullest form of which every single being strive for is equal to life because it supposedly represents an achievement of completely being oneself, as Hegel implied in the Phenomenology of Spirit. What is often forgotten is that the way to the fullest form is violent and painful in that it constantly requires analysis of what one already achieved. In this analyzing process, the defective representation must be abandoned and destroyed, Hegel would further assert. Only by doing so, one can continue to find a new and better representation.  In the case of this film, we can see that only when Cane [as first representation of “madness”] sees the book Hobb’s End Horror is not perfect, he then can proceed to write the new one, that is In the Mouth of Madness. This new book [and other new form of representation that might come later] supposed to be better representation of “madness” as it corrects flaws of the previous book. Thus, the quality of this new book is stronger than that of the previous one. The new book In the Mouth of Madness is so strong that it “will drive you absolutely mad; choked [you] with the gleaming white bones, the hideous unholy abominations, countless unhallowed centuries”, says the character Cane when persuades Trent to open himself for “madness”. Trent does open himself for “madness” and, thus, rendered as insane.

Trent’s case shows that the desire for self-examination, which “madness” inspires in whoever come in contact with it, is more challenging with human beings than with the madness being [the abstract matter called madness].  This is partly because human beings reflect social values. Identifying some of those values as “wrong” and abandoning them not only challenges the individual’s inner stability but also disrupts the stability of the society in which one lives. As a consequence, once society classifies a person as “insane”, the individual may find himself lonely and isolated, or he may even be killed for such apparent “deviation”, Berger warned us in his Sacred Canopy. There are plenty of examples of killing done on the basis of “deviation,” and one of them is the religious conflict involving the Ahmadiyya community. To anticipate such horrific effect of madness, society advises those who are infected by madness, like Trent, must be made named, isolated from the healthy society, and cured before sent back to society.

The film even prescribes that to survive the influence of madness, one must do what Trent did. ”He did not shriek. He stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown. And refused to close his eyes”. He continually refused to subjugate his life to the power outside himself i.e. the influence of Cane’s book and the label “insane” from a medical representative. He does it by often announcing his self-knowledge that he is a rational, independent and happy man who has control over himself and that no one will have a chance to control his mind.  In short, he fights madness by maintaining his ability to think for himself. Otherwise, madness will seep in and take control over his mind and dictate his body to do things he may not like doing.

The film is indeed very intellectually stimulating in that it not only portrays the origin of madness, but it also alludes to the insidious violence inherent in the transformation of knowledge. The film shows that knowledge transformation is violent because it requires the potential receiver to first destroy what he already knows before this new knowledge rests in their mind, a Foucauldian would say. However, such violence is mostly tolerable, if not acceptable, in almost every society. Why? Because such insidious violence, like the kind that Cane’s book generated, represent “senseless, seemingly unmotivated acts of violence”, says Trent. Only when it obviously threatens the life of the larger society, as in the form of a riot, will the power representatives act.  Again, the key to survive both the violence inherent in the madness and in the transformation of knowledge is to maintain the ability to think for oneself.

Braving the Days: The Seasons Are Changing

 

It’s only early August and there’s a briskness to the air on the East Coast. Last year, there was blistering heat, and I craved the cool, foggy days of San Francisco, but this season has changed, and so have I. I mean, on a fundamental level I have not. I was talking to my mother about love, and I told her ever since I was a little girl, I never felt the need to prioritize love. I didn’t have the capacity to put friends before a pet, or lovers before colleagues or acquaintances before old friends.

It took me 30 years to learn the term “non hierarchical” in terms of relationships until I was 30 years old, but I immediately connected to the idea, because I’d been living it my entire life. I have always loved people, I’ve always loved life and books, writing and traveling but have never been able to say that I loved something more than the other. I understand that there are times in my life when I may be more comfortable writing a book than a music album, or when I’d rather teach than perform. There are times when I’d like to be alone, and other times when I’d like to be very social, but the emphasis of my feelings towards the phases of my life was never anything that caused me anxiety. Outside of earning a living, and work to keep social and relational conflict to a minimal, I never felt like there was something I needed to be doing that I was not doing because something came first.

A large reason for this is because I have chosen to not have children yet. I think a child is the only human being that I absolutely know would not fit into a non hierarchical structure. With this said, in my teaching career, I believe I have been successful because I treat adults and children as if they are equal beings. No, I don’t use inappropriate language, but I do not value children’s thoughts, presence and even advice over adults. I think kids give the best life advice. I think they are observant, and wise and enjoy spending time with them.

The seasons are changing and maybe I am on some levels, or maybe I am just refining what I’ve always known about myself. The weather and the Earth don’t function by the construct of hierarchy. All things are equal. I believe life and love should be fluid.

Nietzsche Never Went Mad, He Walked Off Like Cassady

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Image of German humor magazine Fliegende Blätter’s 1892 “Rabbit and Duck”

1.

Madness, of course, is multifarious.

It’s August. I value August. I like beginnings, for example, and August begins de dicto with the first letter of what we name the alphabet and de re the season of the harvest of endings for beginnings—autumn, itself de dicto so too. August is prudence and eo ipso sanity. It is power, with which madness is often inversely related.

August has been power for some time, in the West. Pax Romana, two centuries of relative peace in Rome, was inaugurated by the ruler Augustus who, like his famous predecessor, Julius Caesar, would be honored by the gift of a month being named after him—Caesar’s July the only other such honor. Yet another of the regent’s many names, it meant ‘venerable’ or ‘esteemed’, and was meant to give notice of his continued successes for the de jure Republic—de facto, of course, he was, as power often is, an autocratic (however benevolent) ruler. Both names—Caesar’s and Augustus’s—were common epithets for later, also autocratic sovereigns of Rome. Power begetting power to the letter.

The letters of language the alpha-bet. The power of language ex vi termini, so to speak, because power is responsibility, and responsibility is a bet. It’s a form of hospitality, which I’ll talk about later vis-à-vis Heidrun Friese.

Yes, that rhymes a bit there, and, yes, so too is sanity all these. The epistemological tree of knowledge and the etymological tree of language. The Abrahamic and geometric beliefs of those from whom I descend consecrate two theoanthropomorphic trees, knowledge of good and evil growing with life. The entwining branches of reason and synapse reaching toward that cognate Sol.

lovely tree, isn’t it?

I grew up around eucalyptus. I grew up on Vargas Road, after my maternal patronym—Azorean loves there on our plateau. I grew up in the East Bay, outlying these avenues of San Francisco.

The reason for naming where I live what it’s named, one of its names, California, is the conquest of lands brimming with culture. It’s the idealized fiction of it, even—the glorious setting of its whole conquest. I mean to say it comes from a book about people going to America and taking land from those already there, that was read and loved by people who chose to do exactly what they read, and then, to name the place after what they’d read in the book about doing it, upon doing it. Seriously. Imperiously.

California is a queen for conquest. I am inhabitant and inheritor of a victim—the finally diagnosed contagion of the ἐπιστήμη of λόγος.

We weren’t from there, you know. Just needed a place to stay, while coming to join in the righteous and god-fearing resources of the glorious bounty of his… yeah… you get it. Reasons for being here and so we went there. There’s a living in dying, you know.

there’s a logic to it.

Lewis Carroll wrote a children’s book based on logic. It’s rather novel, I can say that. However, I think the point of the book is that that isn’t to say much of anything, all things considered—as logic goes down a hole and never leaves, for Alice, dreaming, because Carroll wrote literature influenced by his mingling the vicissitudes of modern logic into stories he told for his nieces.

The world a land of ad-venture—signs of the wonder full game in living.

Of Alice’s adventure, I read closely that untimely tea party with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and that dormouse. Carroll is known for packing his tale full of potential interpretations and symbolism. Gilles Deleuze was famously intrigued, for example.

Madness is this party’s theme, and there are histories to madness. There are histories of it. My fellow columnist Tini Ngatini’s thoughts, for example. Michel Foucault’s, which famously caused quite the stir with Jacques Derrida. Foucault the professed Nietzschean.

The West knows madness, and therein lies the force of these terms. The power in the words and the wordsmiths of the world, and the thought that power is method, and that I am against method.


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Image of the Cover of Paul Feyerabend’s 1975 Against Method (partial)

2.

The method of the party, for example.

Some party, this—some state of affairs. The party line, the personal nightlives—the good.

The Greeks and their eudaimonia.

the good life.

It’s just a part of everything else, after all. There is the bad. There is wrongdoing and error. There are those considered insane—synoptically incorrect, in some sense, so to speak. It’s been this way for some time now, too. There are paintings studied for insight into artists who died confined in asylums.

Alice is directed to the mad by the Cheshire Cat, and arrives at their party in media res. The hare had lost his mind during or just after the month of his namesake, because of the hatter’s previously good relationship with Time spoiling due to the Queen of Hearts’ poor opinion of the hatter’s objectionable recital of a (modified) ‘Twinkle Little Star’, the party becoming forever in media res and Alice a (somehow) later and unwelcome interruption.

The dormouse, often abused while dozing, is soon picked as their storyteller, politic conversation with Alice going awry, and pieces together a story about three sisters who lived in and ate treacle, at the bottom of a well of it, even learning to draw treacle along with everything that begins with ‘M’—relating that letter to ‘T’, a relation which becomes more explicit after the party with the Mock Turtle (really a tortoise, and friends with an outright imaginary griffin) and its sad nostalgia for the bygone and obscure unity of an academic and subterranean age, and is itself related, as a relation, to a reciprocal relation of the former letter to ‘H’, ‘M’ becoming the middle figure of an allegorical syllogism, so to speak, perhaps—before Alice, offended by that mad hatter yet again, abruptly leaves, and the poor dormouse is last seen being shoved into a teapot by the hatter and hare.

So, she arrives, has the worst time, and abruptly leaves. That’s how Alice fares at the party.

That’s how logic fares in the world. I recall Plato’s Charmides, its aporetic elenchus and the elusiveness and superfluous meaninglessness of wisdom.

There is nonsense in all of this, as Carroll’s lyrical epigraph to his tale suggests. There is the mad.

Notable is the complete absence of conversational rapport at this party. Nothing said between Alice and her companion partiers ever goes well. Either she’s been offended, or caused offense, or simply doesn’t understand what she’s told at all, and while we’re given some of Alice’s own perspective—for example, she’s very interested in questions about eating and drinking, to which we can attribute the dormouse’s fascination with treacle, and is so much less than keen to switch places at the table when candidly directed to do so by the hatter—her companion’s perspectives are almost uniformly opaque, as we’re told nothing—even the conversation they hold among themselves is senseless to the reader. I mean, who indeed knows why the butter ‘wouldn’t suit the works’?

The hatter even denies knowing the answer to his own now very famous riddle, Carroll himself giving his reply only later as afterthought for ardent fans, suggesting what is the manifold meaninglessness of the whole party tout court. Utter madness, down to the dormouse’s syrup, that treacle, which I think of as a complex element that suggests skepticism and decadence as resolution to confusion. Immanuel Kant called pure reason the logic of illusion, you know, whatever that means in the end, I guess.

A further mark of the party’s novel part to play in the novel is their introduction by the cat, who relates them to everyone else in Wonderland: the grinning feline tells Alice that not only are the partiers mad, but everyone else is, too, including Alice and the cat stating it all so.

The lot of them, beginning to end, the whole of Wonderland, quite, quite mad.


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Image of an illustration by John Tenniel for the 1865 first edition of Alice in Wonderland (partial)

3.

The partiers, of course, say little to Alice, who thinks herself sane. They speak as if confused about everything, even having spoken to her—expertly following some topoi of the epoche she hasn’t the faintest chance of catching let alone employing. They’re absent even as they sit at the table. They talk and drink, and nothing gets said, nothing gets done—timeless perplexity. It’s a party of parties and a party for parties.

Parties suggest the state, the partisan, and eo ipso those who must not be named. The terrible and the unethical—the ex communicado and the damnatio memoriae. The city’s vagrant. The outliers…

Foucault writes of a City of Reason being founded where the mad are nothing but mad, at the price of estranged citizenship. There is a sense of method, and Foucault studies those facilities which are the site of exchange between sane and insane—houses of confinement first built for lepers only later becoming asylums, and each as a harbor for the constant mooring of the Ship of Fools. The relation of the city to the mad is both real and imaginary—those ships of the ejected mad sent both somewhere and nowhere by both real and imaginary expulsion and isolation.

He writes: “Incessantly cast in this empty role of unknown visitor, and challenged in everything that can be known about him, drawn to the surface of himself by a social personality silently imposed by observation, by form and mask, the madman is obliged to objectify himself in the eyes of reason as the perfect stranger, that is, as the man whose strangeness does not reveal itself. The city of reason welcomes him only with this qualification and at the price of this surrender to anonymity.”

Madness changes over time for Foucault—continuity is more historiographical than historical—and he observes prima facie relevant medical knowledge as the 20th century’s historical instantiation.

Today’s pathologists studying the lack of a lack of a lack.

The madness of the 16th century is different from that of the 18th. The experience of and response to it, tending from the awe-full fear of the animal in man—eo ipso its equally awe-full cage—to the developing theory of man’s foray into his ‘self’, into being human qua intellectual qualia, knowledge learning more about knowledge.

The former, earlier, is perhaps more external—a beast of the inhuman sensualities of mysterious, noncognitive agency, and eo ipso a sort of civil foil as a wild Stranger—the latter, a self-reflective madness, perhaps more internal, in inverse relation to man’s ‘divine’ grace and psychic faculties, their prudence, and eo ipso more of a darkened mirror—the empty, faceless Stranger. I recall Herodotus’s folk etymology of the word ‘barbarian’, being the work and word of Greeks who named those others, those not Greek in table and tongue, as they sounded—’bar bar bar…’—letters and language everywhere, even elsewhere (the radical modern’s rather ageist anti-aestheticization of the infant’s ‘dada’, for example).

One doesn’t understand the mad, however, in any case. That is the form of the continuity.

the ends of reason and the end of reason.

I wonder if this continuity is myopia, or the observation of something and the history of knowing about it? Both Aristotle and Descartes discount out-of-hand the opinions of those they call mad. No reason to even think of such thoughts, let alone their analysis.

I wonder, are these pathologized ‘psychos’ more-or-less the same? Is theirs a path or paths? Is madness a recurring thing or something new ‘each time’, later evaluated and so labeled as itself? To what all do we refer when we speak about madness? ‘I don’t know.’ Is this, too, merely naturalized anthropology, so to speak? If the mad aren’t human? Foucault discusses art, articles, studies, journals, private letters, medical and state records, encyclopedias…

Is the proliferation of knowledge the proliferation of a plethora of interpretive histories? What do I do when I wish to ask, as I just did now, “What, in the end, is madness?”, if such a wish is to ask, “What does it mean?”, I wonder.

Madness is formidable, powerful, and not just Carroll’s wondrous partiers can recall a lot in this regard.


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Image of Hieronymus Bosch’s c. 1490-1500 The Ship of Fools (partial)

4.

Alice spends most of the time in Wonderland smaller than she is, shrunk down by eating and drinking, and only begins to expand back to her usual size near her adventure’s denouement at the Knave’s trial in the King’s court. Eating and drinking relate, I think, to Alice’s propensity for wishing, her curiosity, and her constant desire to be aware and in control of whatever situation she comes upon while in Wonderland—to epistemic power. To reason and rationality, as it were.

After the hatter’s nervous testimony in the case against the knave, when he’s put on the spot by the king to state his evidence and falters under the queen’s piercing gaze, Alice’s growth, eventually becoming problematic for the entire ‘pack of cards’, whose court of justice she’s found herself in at last, finishing her adventure in waking up to her sister’s caress of her hair imagined as her own swiping at the attacking cards, is at first only problematic for the dormouse, who can’t breathe because of her ‘ridiculously’ increasing self. As, telling her, she has ‘no right’ to do so ‘here’. There’s a law to this land (somehow).

The court case, perhaps, is concerned with Alice’s reason for being in Wonderland, by way of eating, drinking, and that wishful curiosity. Knavery, to be sure, as alluded to, I think, in Carroll’s introduction of her eating and drinking, and eo ipso her growing and shrinking, by way of her ostensibly quite wise for her young age—definitely not ‘childish’ like those other children her age, Alice thinks—sensibilities toward things labeled ‘poison’.

Alice knows, you see.

The witnesses called before Alice herself is at the stand are the hatter and the Duchess’ cook, and we read the latter’s latent answer to cross-examination corrected, after first bluntly refusing to give her testimony, as the tale’s final mention of the partiers, when she replies that tarts are made of pepper. ‘Treacle’, the dormouse mumbles. Nobility’s cook thinks that tarts are made of pepper and it’s the mad of the mad who correct her—no, they say, it’s treacle all the way down (the well, as it is).

It’s the untenable relation between logic and its adversarial other—a sickening sweetness of there being wrong among the good, regardless of which way we slice it. That we can fail—we can fail to understand, fail to know, fail to do good. We can be confused by everything at a party, because none of it seems to make sense except some in the particulars and even then merely perhaps.

That logic only goes so far, but going further is something we nevertheless can do. We can indeed be irrational. In María Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman’s provocatively titled 1983 paper, “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for ‘The Woman’s Voice’”, there are thoughts that recall this element of existence.

They speak to those who aim to theorize with others different from themselves—others othered by the hands of power—and remind prospective feminist scholars of what to expect, and where they are to be ready to have their entire world thoroughly and critically disrupted, put to question on all sides and given no quarter, thought of purely as object of mistrust—as those others have had done to them.

It is this such praxis I imagine when reading Alice’s exchanges with the hatter, the hare, and the dormouse. The Combahee River Collective’s 1977 statement of commitment to the “continual examination” of their politics. The world is there to talk about, it is.

There is a world of difference between Alice and her new companions, whose name also begins with that alphanumeric letter, so to speak, of autumn, and these chaotic ambiguities and misunderstandings venture a metaphysical cacophony to the tale.

A lesson for the moralistic reader is palpable: just listen, Paolo Freire, too, had counseled—listen to those who are oppressed for the way out of oppression. Here them.

I note that Freire’s thoughts wouldn’t be done justice, I think, if taken as placing the work of ending oppression in the hands of the oppressed—instead, there’s the idea of active listening. Desmond Tutu’s wise words reproach those who are neutral, for the very real and culpable part they play in abetting situations of injustice, and the thoughts of my fellow columnist Anwar Uhuru, for example, are imperative in light of current and longstanding tragedies.


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Image of Franz Pohl’s c. 1864-1922 The Exterminating Angel (partial)

5.

Carroll seems to have felt there were morals to Wonderland, himself. The duchess, whose cook is at the stand later in the king’s court, is prone to offering a moral for everything, and offers readers the following: “Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love, that make the world go ‘round!”, “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves”, “Birds of a feather flock together”, “The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours,” “Be what you would seem to be,” and, a revision of this last, one of the more difficult passages of the book, “Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”

I’m sure I’ve gotten that down right, yes.

If anything is obvious, I think, it’s Carroll’s dexterity with the English language. His also dexterous (and English) sense of humor, of course, as well.

Carroll also had a command of mathematical logic. He wrote academic papers. One way I like to think of Wonderland is along the lines of its being a complex metaphor for a non-classical, trivalent (or n-valent) topology, and this, because Carroll studied Western logic in the midst of its revolution.

Alice embodies, perhaps, all those well-versed, ‘old boy’ logicians who’d found themselves rather adrift in the serious, leaping gains made in the field—much of it showing up in David Hilbert’s problems of 1900 and the proliferation of schools of thought over the next fifty years (to say nothing of the formation of structures which would abet the rise of Analyticity, e.g., Bernard Bolzano’s critique of Kant, which, as a philosopher of the US academy, jr. academic, I attest even today).

Alice finds herself in a place where concepts like contradiction, mutual exclusion, quantification, and correspondence, all slip away as parts of something more complex than proof and refutation. I recall Graham Priest’s 1998 paper, “What Is So Bad About Contradictions?” and the implosion of the reign of the classical logician’s explosion, and the introduction to Margaret Cuonzo’s 2014 book on paradoxes: “Is There Trouble in Paradox?”

Wonderland, indeed (and in deed, as it were). Port-Royal problems, anyone? Pascal? No? Wonderful.

This revolutionary place nevertheless has its own magnificent logic—its own bewildering science. It is the advent of this newfangled and coherent difference that Wonderland would represent, and Alice’s disjointed conversations, here at the party and elsewhere, are a series of caustic episodes where she finds herself at the mercy—and, at times, the lucky advantage—of her old beliefs and dispositions.

That the partiers at least seem to be disconcerted by Alice’s responses could caution against thinking, when all seems lost and beyond oneself, of others to be any better off, let alone doing well in whatever the ways they would wish. That to think of the self says a specious little in the way of thinking of the other, for whatever it might be worth to do so nevertheless, because, as we might draw from Victor Hugo, nihilism, of course, “has no substance.”

The madness of Foucault’s madness… the lunatics and merry fools of the confines of the imminent asylum the legatees of beings now only of mere verisimilitude. The gaping horror, the incessantly wailing vessel of infant tyrants marooned here among our plants and animals—flora and fauna—the duchess’ wailing baby becoming a grunting pig in Alice’s arms, to run off into the forest and wild.

It really is turtles all the way down. Mock turtles, treacle, and terrible things, nevertheless, in the end.

the mad and the bad.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, it’s said, asked on his deathbed: “Tell them I had a wonderful life.” He had written that even standing by a large tree and looking up at it, greeting it so, “Lovely tree!”, only does so much alethiologically, however much it necessarily, trivially, does epistemologically. That there are problems with classical models of knowledge, such as what Edmund Gettier’s 1963 paper, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” gave notice to, those serious equivocations in its mere three pages, and problems still in all these many modern opinions.

Logic does little to help things like what David Hume’s thoughts about induction might point to, perhaps, for example. (Get it? Example!? I can’t believe I get to write this!)


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Image of Raphel’s 1509-11 The School of Athens (partial)

6.

Sense and sensibility. Rules. Life black tie.

Writing at the end of his, in Europe in 1951, Wittgenstein was thinking about the logic of certainty. He observes situations like teaching a child what a tree is by ostensive definition, standing there stating aloud:

Lovely tree, isn’t it?

He writes: “My ‘mental state’, the “knowing”, gives me no guarantee of what will happen. But it consists in this, that I should not understand where a doubt could get a foothold nor where a further test was possible.”

“it is as if “i know” did not tolerate a metaphysical emphasis.”

He reproaches us philosophers: “Forget this transcendent certainty, which is connected with your concept of spirit.” That we’re to remember there will be nonsense in it all—in the world at large.

Friese wrote about the idea of hospitality, which I suggested is relevant to everything here. Friese’s clarification of what that concept means—work characteristic of philosophers, if you ask Wilfrid Sellars—in her 2004 paper, “Spaces of Hospitality” begins with exegesis of Franz Kafka’s unfinished, deathbed novel The Castle.

That place of a castle where K is a stranger no stranger to what it’s said Kafka said, on his deathbed, were K’s own deathbed “auxiliary circumstances” vis-à-vis, Friese now, “the usual order of things.”

The order of things, I said. We’re in the thick and thin of it all, I think, it is. Hospital. The Latin hospes and the Greek Ἐμπειρικοί, whatever Sextus Empiricus’ statements to the contrary, as it were, I guess.

Friese writes: “The question that the arrival of the other raises is thus that of responsibility – the response to a request posed by an Other – and how to do justice to its unmistakable, irreducible singularity and subjectivity.”

Hospitality is the tension of agreeing with someone. Agreements are a form of drawing terms, and are kept to per those terms, as is hospitality. Violating the terms disavows the agreement. I think of both language and knowledge as similar in just this such sense, where not only is the use of the alphabet, and conversation, and understanding, and knowing, and reason, etc. ad infinitum est in intellectu, an agreement with terms to be kept, but so too are all these merely parts of a far more insensible and wondrous, far more wide and real whole.

Land as far as the eye can see, and still yet further.

It isn’t for nothing, I think, that the three sisters in the dormouse’s tale live at the bottom of a well while Alice, too, enters Wonderland, having followed that White Rabbit out of sheer curiosity, by the tail, by falling ever so far down a well, and, further, while falling even falls into a dreamy state, coming to ask the same questions, over and again, about the very animals (bats and cats) heard in that recital judged objectionable by the queen, getting the whole party stuck in timelessness, in Carroll’s adept use of mise en abyme.

Arms within arms, and G. E. Moore looking down at his hand and back up at you.

Here it is. You see it.

Wittgenstein, famously in response to Moore, even renders demonstration—a tool of reasoning that Aristotle held hallow for resting inferentially on first principles of inviolable efficacy—some sort of powerless peripateticism. Even inference, Wittgenstein writes, is only so much itself and such so much use. Certainty is self-confidence, so to speak, and nothing more. Spiritless, certainty is… being no more right than when saying aloud that it’s raining in one’s dream when it is in fact, unbeknownst to one as merely dreaming, raining while one sleeps.

Alice was dreaming, and thought up a great many mad things—Carroll, an astute scholar of logic’s lacks and dead-ends.

logic’s sense and senselessness.

There is another ship that comes to mind for me, these days, when I think about that ship of fools and all these thoughts. W. V. O. Quine discussed Otto Neurath’s metaphor of the ship of science, where changes needed to the methods of science are done in media res—out at sea instead of at port—while synchronous with their use in the activity of science. The methods and acts both in flux, like a couple of seaworthy salvors, and as Foucault writes of the logic of the City of Reason: “This discourse, in its logic, commands the firmest belief in itself, it advances by judgments and reasonings which connect together; it is a kind of reason in action.”

I might point to my hand repeatedly in my dream, scientific in exhortation as a dreamer.

Lovely hand, isn’t it? Lovely land, isn’t it?

Like some ship of Theseus, everything flows, and the river you stepped in… well…

I confess to thinking Nietzsche never went mad. I think he was sick and gave up caring enough to be understood. I think he finally decided the logic of sense wasn’t worth the time of day, perhaps.

About this, of course, I may wrong. I may, further, even be somewhat mad for it.

C’est la vie… une mal du siècle.


August’s Accompaniment

Boris’ 1998 LP Amplifier Worship

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild European Colonialism and Why We Need to Take Games Seriously.

Who would have thought that from a yellow-ghost-eating ball and a jittery Italian plumber video games would become a medium for complex storytelling (like Starcraft, Bioshock, or Mass Effect) and create worlds of such definition and creativity that would equal and surpass any animation studio?

  1. The Praise

An understatement: Breath of the Wild is successful. To play it is to live another life. It is eclectic, taking the best of the original Zelda games: their magic, the creativity of the puzzles, the need to collaborate with friends and strangers in the internet to solve them. And it has allowed itself to be influenced by others. The size of the world, the fragility and variety of the weapons, the side quests, they mirror Skyrim or Mass Effect.

The plot is not particularly nuanced. There is a protagonist, allegory of order in a western moral system, who faces, with the assistance of secondary characters, an antagonist, allegory of chaos. Like a Harry Potter that faces a Voldemort, Beowulf a Grendel, Elijah a Jezebel.

But simplicity is not the enemy of greatness. The Odyssey is about a man who is travelling home (and has some adventures along the way). James Joyce’s Ulysses is no more than a man who walks through Dublin one day. The beauty (and transcendence) of these works lies on their imagination, the awe of their descriptions, the pleasure in reading them, the complexity and newness of their words, how difficult they are to translate, etcetera.

BoTW has a simple plot, but the attention to detail, the texture of every tree, flower, monster, and character is unparalleled. It does not use words to create the world, but code, and it is some beautiful code! It is a monumental project. It requires an active reader to solve the puzzles in order to move the story along. It is not the same challenge as reading a book, but it is an engaging challenge nonetheless.

  1. The Criticism

BoTW is a metaphor of European Colonialism. The main character, a white, blue-eyed young man is destined to save the world. Like Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden (1899)—the racist author of the all-round awful Jungle Book (1894)—Link has the burden to visit the most exotic and wild places of the planet because the inhabitants need him to save them. Like Columbus or Magallanes, he has to “discover” the world, “draw” maps and help underdeveloped peoples to find their way.

Link is the European “I” that faces the “other”. Thus, he finds, for example, the strict matriarchy of the Gerudo; the Gorons, a tribal mining society that appreciates physical strength above all; the Rito, who literally live on trees; and the Sheikah, keepers of ancient wisdom and inhabitants of pagoda-like houses. Link finds all these people of color, saves them, and then, at the end, goes back “home” to save the allegorical woman, who also cannot save herself.

BoTW establishes racial hierarchies and fetishizes the “other”, perpetuates the problematic symbol of the white savior who goes and helps the “third world” or, if you so prefer, the “developing world.” He then goes home and saves the women. Indeed, the video game cover alludes to Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting that has often been interpreted as an enlightened European man looking over a world of wilderness.

Video games do not exist in an ideological vacuum. And maybe the important question is not why BoTW sees the world from the perspective of a European explorer that finds underdeveloped peoples in need of civilization. Maybe the question should be: Why does a Japanese studio choose this narrative of world history as a relevant way to tell the story, and a commodity that will find many buyers worldwide? Maybe, European colonialism is still so natural and a discourse that feels so normal, that we will not question it.

Interpreting video games seriously enables us to understand in what discourses we are immersed. In this particular case, it allows us to understand that racism and coloniality do not always manifest as border walls or dead bodies on the shore of the Mediterranean, but can be subtle and, to dismantle them, we must give them the gravity they demand.

 

Follow Ricardo Quintana Vallejo on Twitter @realquir

Powell’s Bookmarks: On Leaving Portland

A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2002 Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, which seemed to be playing at the local cinema as part of a Nicholas Cage retrospective. Cage plays the screenwriter Kaufman as he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing book The Orchid Thief into a movie. The structure of the book, described as “that sprawling, New Yorker crap that doesn’t really go anywhere,” does not lend itself easily to a film adaptation. During one of Kaufman’s attempts to start the screenplay, he describes an opening scene that stretches from the beginning of the earth to his birth in mid-twentieth century Los Angeles. Finding a plot (as a verb, to make plans; as a noun, a patch of solid ground) in this sprawling life—that does not really go anywhere—is one of those mammoth mammal tasks that appears so insurmountable that someone invented the snooze button on alarm clocks just so we could ignore this responsibility and return to sleep for a few more precious minutes. I am reminded of the thoughts of Blaise Pascal as he tried to describe this condition:

“We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and hold fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us.”

We are trapped between the infinitely large and infinitesimally small, engulfed by the impenetrable secrecy of life. I suppose it is no wonder that people like bookmarks:  to know that you have a place somewhere in the enormity of everything. Considered in this light, dog-earing the top corner of a page is forgivable. You wish to leave a trace of yourself in the copy of a book that left an impression—evanescent or indelible—on your mind and heart.

I promised my mother I would not buy any more books until I returned to England. Back in September 2015, I expected to live in Portland for no more than a year. One of the two suitcases for my first transatlantic flight to Oregon was crammed with books, and I assumed that they would easily satisfy me for a year. I was wrong.

From what I recall, I broke my promise within the first week. The irresistible temptation came from a David Shields’ novel called Dead Languages, which I bought at the famous Powell’s City of Books. When the transaction was complete, the cashier slipped a complementary Powell’s bookmark between the front cover and the title page. The bookmark bears the addresses and contact information of each Powell’s branch on one side, and, on the other, lists their “buying hours” and implores you to “sell us your books.” During my frequent visits, I have spotted several people with cardboard boxes full of books which they hope to exchange for a wallet-wad of dollars.

Art by Maskull Lasserre

I am leaving Portland soon. Every so often, I look at the messy piles of books in my apartment then glance at a nearby Powell’s bookmark to check their buying hours. You must book an appointment for an employee to sift through your books and decide whether anything is worth enough money to take off your hands and sell in the store. I think that process discourages me. I could not bear the humiliation of standing in public while someone judges my literary taste before they hand me a few dollars for two boxes of books. Walter Benjamin observed astutely in his breathtaking essay “Unpacking My Library” that “to the book collector . . . the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves,” so I am reluctant to return half of my collection to the coercion of commerce. They will become just another commodity to be repriced, reshelved, and resold.

Luckily, the other half of my collection will endure and travel with me. Unlike Benjamin, I am still in the stage of packing my library—choosing the right volumes and facing the Tetris-esque challenge of fitting them neatly into boxes. Some of them still contain their Powell’s bookmark, ready to help me find and keep my place.

The history of the bookmark takes place inside the history of the book. Before the Big Bang of the Gutenberg Galaxy, books were rare and written by a meticulous scribe. The rarity of these texts, writes A.W. Coysh in his 1974 Collecting Bookmarks, demonstrated the “need for some device to mark the place in a book . . . Without bookmarkers, finely bound volumes were at risk. To lay a book face down with pages open might cause injury to its spine, and the crease on a page that had the corner turned down remained as a lasting reproach.” One could put a bookmark between the pages and remove it without leaving a trace. Bookmarks used to be predominantly made with silk and leather, but, as the mass-publishing industry made books more available and affordable, they were made with cheaper material like thin card. The new availability of paperbacks meant that the bookmark became less of a way to protect the pages and spine of a book, and functioned more as an artificial memory aid. It anchored the reader in the text.

And so, I take another tome from my shelf and decide whether it is headed toward my new home or the Powell’s on Hawthorne. Just as every bookmark belongs in a book, every book belongs on a shelf. When I was younger, I dedicated hours to arranging my bedroom library in alphabetical order. Eventually, I ran out of space to organize them into neat rows. Stacks of randomly ordered books rose to the height of my wardrobe, and, occasionally, tumbled to the floor. Benjamin explains that one’s library maintains “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” Regardless of the obsessive order of your books (alphabetical, chronological, thematic), they will fall into a familiar disorder as soon as you take them off the shelf, place them in your lap, and forget to reshelve them according to their original arrangement. An excessively neat library is the mark of the unenthusiastic reader.

Right now, my library is neater than it has ever been. Two different piles for two different fates. Reflecting on his own library, Benjamin opines that the collector desires and respects singular copies of books rather than the book-in-itself. I have not possessed and read Shields’ Dead Languages, but only my own copy of that book. Each copy in these piles is a belonging that I have taken to the various houses and apartment buildings where I have lived over the past two years. Even though I paid the rent to put a roof over their spines, these tales and treatises formed a dwelling—as Benjamin put it, “with books as the building stones”—in which I found peace and purpose. It seemed that I belonged to them more than they belonged to me.

Installation by Alicia Martin

Copies of Dead Languages, Race Matters and Silent Spring that were once mine will soon fall into the hands of someone else. Like Don DeLillo writes in White Noise, “Maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands.” Each book bears the bruises of previous owners: creases in the spine, smudges of dirty thumbs in the margins, a scribbled birthday message from a close friend on the title page. The history of the book encompasses the histories of each individual book and each individual reader. Whenever someone turns to a new page and starts to speak with that faint voice inside their head, they are alive. Maybe I will feel less remorse about taking my books to that desk in Powell’s if I understand that I am sharing the opportunity to feel alive with people I will never meet or know.

Once again, I move from one city of strangers to another. I doubt that I will make the same promise to my mother. We have both learnt that books overrule oaths. Speaking of my books, they’re all sorted into their separate boxes and addressed to different destinations. I am going to take them out tomorrow. One trip will take me to the Post Office; the other, Powell’s. I expect one last complementary bookmark. After all, I read a lot of books and I do not want to lose my place as I turn from page to page. I like to follow the plot wherever it goes in this sprawling, New Yorker-style crap of life. I fold over the corners of pages occasionally to remember where I have been and to remind myself to return there in the future. In this way, all the places I’ve been stay with me wherever I go.

Playing ‘Exquisite Corpse’ By Myself

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Photo by author

    “And it kills me, the word sorry. As if something like music

 

should be forgiven. He nuzzles into the wood like a lover,

  inhales, and at the first slow stroke, the crescendo

     seeps through our skin like warm water, we

 

who have nothing but destinations, who dream of light

   but descend into the mouths of tunnels, searching.”

from Ocean Vuong’s “Song on the Subway”

 

“I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of a greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.”

Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

 

“Well let’s think for a moment. What type of orange are you?” Our professor asks us.

On a Thursday night we discuss how to teach metaphor in our Poetry and Pedagogy class. We are reading Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions translated by William O’Daly. Dr. Berlin has asked us what it feels like to be an orange.

“I’m a blood orange,” my classmate responded. We all laughed. “I’m red and juicy on the inside.”

“Who gets the most sun and who decides on these matters?” someone wondered.

“I would think the biggest oranges would get the most sun,” another classmate said.

“What if the bigger oranges are bigger because they get the most sun?” I posed.

“This is not a Marxist tree!” the Blood Orange shouts. People laugh, I audibly eye roll.

People began calling out, “Everyone gets equal sun!”

“Where are these oranges growing? Is this a private farm or someone’s garden?”

“Did you hear about the peach tree they cut down on campus and replaced with Dogwood. That’s nice for about one month of the year, but I want peaches!”

“Now,” I start in, “what if everyone thinks I’m an orange but I’m really a grapefruit?”

As people laugh someone says something about me being bitter.

“What if,” I begin, “we are all those genetically modified mini-oranges engineered for children under 5 and we just think we are real oranges? We’re all in a crate together being shipped to the supermarket. We’re derivative oranges,” now I’m being a bit of an ass.

“Are we the types of oranges used in perfumery?” Someone starts looking up what type of oranges those are on their phone.

One classmate says they are a Florida-hating, navel gazing navel orange from Florida.

We discuss zen koans now:

Can a koan change a life?

My professor asks if we all remember the Marx Brothers. She wonders if people growing up today have sufficient exposure to absurdity; she comes from the era of Vaudeville.

I would think it’s clear absurdity is palpable now. Especially politically.

“Do people today have something like ‘The Shirt Song’? It’s just a guy talking about how he wants his shirt,” Dr. Berlin starts singing it.

He wants his shirt!

                                                                       I want my shirt! 

He won’t be happy without his shirt!

 

I think about when I used to do prank calls as a teenager with my friends Danny and Anthony.

An answering machine beeps (Danny, barely disguising voice trailing off laughing): “HELLO DERE! Come on down to Wal’er’s Park this weekend for some hotdooogs and sode-y!” 

Videos exist of Anthony on the couch in a friend’s basement:

“Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of MAURY where today we will be discussing: ‘Help, My Daughter is Having Sex with…Pilot Lights.’”

There’s a clip on that video tape of a high school acquaintance laying sideways and rubbing his body atop a cafeteria table saying “Lemon Curry,” in a sensual way. Quickly: a cut to my friend Danielle in art class sharing her series of “feeling papers”: about 40 papers of possible human feelings. She reads each of them to me in discordant voices, pointing at all of the papers which are decorated with a hodge podge of art supplies, peaking slightly over the top of the papers and giggling after each one.

*Danielle in a shrieky voice* “Hopefulllll:” as in are youuu hopefulllll? I hope you’reee hopefulllll *laughter*

We used to laugh at anything when we were that age. In a high school play we performed, And Then There Was One, there was a line I said in the role of Detective Horatio Miles: “What does anyone do in the pantry?” It was tech rehearsal and someone in the audience yelled “Masturbate!” We laughed so hard and our teacher made us this t-shirt.

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Photo and food(?)/paint(?) stain by author

 

Last week I try to make feeling flashcards:
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They are terrible and not like Danielle’s.

I made “privacy” an emotion, too, so if you want to be technical they are no longer feeling flashcards, now they are just cards with words on them.

“Should I watch the videos again,” I wonder now, “or just remember them?”

 

**********

 

On a Thursday night in 2017 we continue discussing metaphor. My professor says: “What if I say: the universe is the smell of pee?” I got lost somewhere and now we’re here and “the universe is the smell of pee.”

Can a metaphor change a life? A law? An economy?

John Tarrant, in Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life, says asking questions, specifically in the form of koans will encourage doubt and curiosity, lead you to see life as funny rather than tragic, and change the idea of who you are. He thinks at the bottom of people’s motives is love.

I ask myself if this can be true.

To prepare for class we read Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. Neruda references Nixon, lemons, roses, and Rimbaud. 

In “Night in Hell” Rimbaud says:

But I am still alive! – Suppose damnation is eternal! A man who wants to mutilate himself is certainly damned, isn’t he? I believe I am in Hell, therefore I am.

Shams Tabrizi said this much earlier:

Don’t search for heaven and hell in the future. Both are now present. Whenever we manage to love without expectations, calculations, negotiations, we are indeed in heaven. Whenever we fight, hate, we are in hell.

I try reading Neruda in the style of Jerry Seinfeld:

Ya knowww…

“With the virtues that I forgot

Could I sew a new suit?”

 

I meannnn…

 

“Why did the best rivers

leave to flow to France?”

 

“And why is the sun such a bad companion

To the traveler in the desert?”

 

Can a question change a life?

 

*********

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Photo by author

“Hello, Love!” Katrina, the barista at Java City, says when a customer walks in, sometimes alternated with, “Hello, sweetie!”

As someone who enjoys observational research, I listen to the way Katrina talks to other customers. “Hello, Love!” “Hello, sweetie!” would ring out from the cafe as I did some reading in the nearby library study area. “It’s so good to see you today!”

I feel as a cynical academic I could have just said “she is infantalizing me,” but I think that’s also bullshit, she wasn’t, this can’t be academonized. 

One day Katrina and I talk about the power of being happy. I think about this a lot. 

Katrina treats everyone with the same happiness. I believe she is happy. We talk about smiling. She says she is 53 and decided she didn’t ever want to be unhappy again. I wonder how this works, not in a shitty sarcastic way, I actually wonder.

Emotional labor debates are not because we don’t want to ever do emotional labor–they are so people recognize the labor we perform. No one has to be good to anyone. All emotions are labor. But what would be the point if no one ever did emotional labor? Should we all stop emoting? I don’t want to stop emoting. 

I don’t think that’s the point.

There are “occupational hazard” emotions to some identities.

Calling someone “angry” can be a way to immediately shut down discourse. Telling someone to smile or be happy is intrusive. These can be ways of policing behavior when it’s threatening to power. But in terms of survival and on a more personal level–what does it do to someone’s health when they are angry a good deal of the time?

In Jessi Gan’s “Still at the Back of the Bus” (an essay from Are All the Women Still White?) Gan brings out that anger as a tool  for social equity is an essential yet alienating reality. She mentions the story of Silvia Rivera: marginalization even on the margins.

“I just want to be who I am. I am living in the way Silvia wants to live. I’m not living in the straight world; I’m not living in the gay world; I’m just living in my own world with Julia and my friends.”

Rivera, along with Marsha P. Johnson, founded “Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries.” Even in queer communities, people told Rivera she wasn’t welcome, beating her up, telling her she was an affront to “real” womanhood, making fun of her language abilities, telling her sex workers did not have a place in the movement. “Progressive” queer people ignored Rivera’s plee to financially help homeless queer youth, so she did it herself.

Queer people, especially of color, gender non-conforming and gender nonbinary are consistently barraged with demands on their identity and forced outings:

          “But who are you?”

Silvia was a founding member of Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance and was shit on by her own “group” so she left.

The answer “I’m me” is not good enough and “who are you as it applies to what serves me?” seems to be the real question when people deny identities.

This should be cause for anger. With this anger can come alienation–the angered pick up the tab for this. They are blamed for the symptom, the anger, when the anger had a causal relationship to something else.

Calling out anger can be a form of shutting down discourse, but the anger that is dwelling inside comes at a cost to the angered, not just the receiver of the anger.

Anger can poison your organs. Anger can kill you.

*Someone in the back of the room says “everything kills you someday” and they are being an ass.*

Practitioners of allopathic as well as hollistic medicine believe anger is stored in the liver. People use alcohol and drugs to cope with anger, too, which further impacts the liver. Silvia Rivera died of liver cancer.

What are the ways people kill people?

No Answer Barthes
from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse

 

 

*********

“Sodom-y and Gonorrhea” and “Minced Oathe” were stories I wrote about breaking faith and questioning the ego when I was 19. I wonder if we are born with more wisdom than we gain and if we lose it over time; I’d write based on dreams I had.

My Grandmother was a Bible school teacher. Everything is apocalyptic revelation.

In “Sodom-y and Gonorrhea” the subject of the dream lays naked in the desert sipping a White Russian reading magazines. Most of the people are naked and imbibing, white metal bunk beds are placed all over in the sand. A natural disaster rips through the place and everyone dies except the subject of the dream.

“You killed some people who didn’t deserve it.”

They look for clothes to cover themself and only find some on a person who has been decapitated. They put the clothes on as a figure on a Hummer*** drives through.

*On a Hummer not in a Hummer because it’s a dream and: dream logic.

*

*It’s a dream, shut up.

 

Though this character is just introduced, and this seems like the beginning of the story, it’s like we know them already. They go off together through a bar where Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” plays. Jesus is the bartender’s name. Jesus knows what you want before you even ask.

The characters talk for a bit and the subject says:

“Whenever I am hating you I am only hating myself.”

 

                                                                                      Jesus swept.

 

 

 

 

Our Bodies, Our Hopes

Yesterday morning at my local coffee shop, I had the sudden urge to tell the woman sitting by the window that her body was beautiful. You see, her body looked like mine, and not many others do. I suspect many people feel the same way about their own bodies. And, since we can’t see ourselves except transposed, it’d been awhile since I’d seen a body like ours.

I instantly recoiled at the thought of a woman I had never met telling me that my body was beautiful at 8:30am while I was trying to work before working through my first cup of coffee. And so I didn’t.

I didn’t tell her that I was so happy to see her beautiful body. Our beautiful body.

Afterwards, I thought about writing this piece and how exactly I would describe our bodies.

The first word that came up was “womanly.”

I hate that word.

What bodies aren’t “womanly”? And what’s worse are all the things that a “womanly” body implies: Full hips and lips, grace (whatever that is, anyway), shaved, waxed, toned into submission. Soft yet powerful. Sound like a Dove ad yet?

Womanly bodies also mean womanly functions. Specifically, in a very non-intersectional heteronormative able-ist way, womanly bodies who are “built” to bear children.

My womanly body does not want children. As far as I’m concerned, my uterus is about as important to my daily life as an appendix or a gallbladder. Sure, it does stuff, but I don’t really need it.

In fact, I’m fairly sure that my womanly body was built to house me. And it’s my choice if I want to share that space with another lifeform, whether that be through penetration or impregnation. My womanly body has no responsibility to anyone but me, and I get to choose how and when to alter the perimeters of that relationship.

The second word that came up was “contoured.” No, I thought. Contouring is what you do with make-up and jet-engine designs.

But how to describe our bodies? I realized there was absolutely no way to describe our bodies without somehow drawing upon their (supposed) sexual or reproductive functions or some other sexualized or mechanized functions.

As a feminist, I’d known for a long time that it’s difficult to divorce sexualization from bodies—especially from women’s bodies. But it hadn’t occurred to me until recently how difficult it is to divorce reproduction from women’s bodies. Women’s bodies are seen as always already reproducing. In the public eye, we could be pregnant or potentially pregnant at any time. This follows the assumption of wanting to be pregnant at any time, especially those of us who are…so “womanly.”

And I don’t shame or look down on any woman who does want to use her body to have children. In fact, Western society does not do enough to support women who make this choice, and even more so the women who did not have a choice to make and found themselves in the same position.

Just as we have gone a long way in separating sex from reproduction, it’s important to begin to think of the ways we can rhetorically separate reproduction from the body.

 

 

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Braving the Days: Stand Back

The question is: is there a separation between life and the liver? Lately, life has been happening to me. Every day has brought an acute opportunity for me to take a path of action or caution. Caution would allow me to withdraw from opportunities to interact with invitations, opportunities to travel and moments to bond and break bread. I have the choice to write or to sleep. I have the choice to touch or to sit alone, I have the choice to relate with my family or to never call.

Specifically, in the arts there are two phases of one’s career:

The season where you pursue and the season where you are pursued.

These seasons after the first inception become interchangeable. Many times a new or emerging artists much must pursue opportunities to create their art before they are offered opportunities to create, simply because the initial pursuit affords an artist the ability to be seen, thus attracting the result unsolicited offers.

Maybe I am in a phase where I have chosen a formidable aloofness out of a fierce attempt to maintain privacy in a culture and governmental structure that find public behavior and interaction to be a new, usable and profitable way of interacting.

This is all okay. I don’t mind receiving opportunities. In fact, I quite appreciate them, but there is this light amount of flailing I experience. A quiet flailing. A flailing I find to be natural as a human being who took much of her life to pursue and now finds it appropriate to stand back.

If I do not stand back, and take stock of my position in the balance of the experience of “pursuing or being pursued,” I can never truly understand who I am as an artist. One who drives forward without reflection will not likely find themselves in a position to be pursued.

____________________________________

It’s been 12 days and I am returning to this piece to complete it.
I feel the same way I did two weeks ago.

There have been times when I’d take a break and return to my writing for the column and I’d feel differently. Today, I just feel like moving steadily and privately, and maybe I’ll live my life that way, forever.

 

 

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Moonlight and the creation of the world

 

Moonlight portrays three episodes in the life of Chiron, a black man who grows up in the inner city of Miami. Instead of the totality of his life, or an un-interrupted narrative, the film shows first an episode titled Little, that spans from his encounter with a paternal figure until the loss of innocence. The second episode, Chiron, opens with the paralyzing passivity of a teenager overwhelmed by bullying and his mother’s addiction; and ends where —unfortunately— too many black American teenagers’ stories end: in a cop car, handcuffed, let down by a justice system that would not protect him, but that would readily vilify him. The third one, Black, shows a stereotype of black masculinity: a monumental body with golden teeth, apparently unbreakable, that shatters in the arms of the only man he ever touched.

The film is a Coming-of-age story and depicts the process of identity formation not only of the main character, but also of the world around him. It is a story of systemic oppression, of addiction, of love, the possibility of (re)understanding hegemonic masculinity and choosing vulnerability.

  1. Coming-of-age Stories

 

All such stories are mirrors of the world they represent.[1] They create our worlds, untangling them.

For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) uses the Midwest as the stage of a developing national identity, that struggles with the confusing formation of a united post-civil war persona, among feelings of loss, hatred, and mourning that persist until this day. Huck’s relationship with his abusive father, with Jim, Widow Douglas, all depict an aspect of the nation and, although they do not provide a clear-cut definition of American, they untangle the possibilities of new relationships that had not existed until then. The Coming-of-age Story, as a genre, usefully depicts every aspect of how the world comes to be, by means of a causative mosaic or quilt.

As the main character develops, so is the world created. If the Coming-of-age genre was able to describe the emerging and unified American identity, what can Moonlight tell us about the inner cities of America, the intersections of racial and sexual oppression, about paternity, maternity, and the emerging world?

  1. Little

 

The small Chiron hides from the bullies in an abandoned apartment. Juan finds him and takes him home, feeds him, and becomes a fortuitous father, patient and loving. Within the genre of the Coming-of-age, Juan represents a mentor, a possible path ahead, that of a drug dealer. But Juan is not the stereotypical-Law-&-Order dealer, but a gentle man, with a great sense of humor and a stable relationship. Juan takes Chiron to the sea and he carries him in a rite that looks almost like a baptism for its solemnity. The sea becomes the place where Chiron always returns. In terms of Michel Foucault, the sea becomes a heterotopia;[2] a place that allows non-hegemonic things to happen. where Chiron can escape and the unintelligible takes place.

In a fundamental scene, we see Chiron’s mother, high and violent, scream one of the words that defines the protagonist’s experience: faggot.

In the last scene of his childhood, Chiron asks Juan the meaning of the word. Juan explains that people use it when they want to hurt a gay person. Chiron asks if her mother is an addict and if Juan is her dealer. The answer to the question ends his childhood.

  1. Chiron

 

This episode is about love and the hostility of the world. Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin, of afro-latinx heritage, becomes his object of desire. We know that Juan has died, but we can only see the ripples that his death could have had in the protagonist. His mother, lost in addiction, gives everything for the rock and takes whatever Chiron has.

Chiron goes back to the sea, where he finds Kevin. There, the unfathomable happens: a hiss and an orgasm. The next day, under the pressure of compulsory violent masculinity, Kevin is forced to beat Chiron up. The teachers that break up the fight are unable to protect him.

When Chiron fights back and goes to prison.

There is no place for love in this world, where every relationship means pain. Any semblance of queerness is destroyed. Misery and sexual identity conflate to throw Chiron into the next heterotopia: prison.

  1. Black

 

Chiron ends up where his mentor started, as a dealer. His mother, in a sort of clinic, apologizes. She does not know how to tell him to love himself; but, at least, she is able to tell him that she loves him, even if he cannot love her back.

After a phone call, Chiron drives from Atlanta to Miami to see Kevin once again. Like a mirror of his own story, Kevin has also been to prison, but has become a cook and a father, although he is not married. Kevin’s sexuality is murky, but it needs no clarity. Chiron finally tells him why he is there: because he has never touched anyone else. The episode ends not in a sexual encounter, but in an embrace, in the possibility of love and company.

In the last scene, little Chiron stands in front of the sea, in the moonlight, and in silence he seems to say that everything that has happened could have been different… but the world is the way it is. The justice system punishes the strange and the poor. Addiction, drugs, poverty, and ignorance lay the path ahead.

And, although the world is hostile and media often represents black men as stereotypes of extraordinary strength and unchecked violence, here Chiron, Juan, and Kevin are compassionate. Juan can be the father of a boy he does not know. Kevin can hold his friend. Chiron can be a sea of tears. The beauty of the film is in the intelligibility of kindness.

[1] “In the event-racked revolutionary years of the late eighteenth century, the emergence of the hero’s character increasingly mirrored the emergence— socially, economically, politically, ideationally—of the world around him” (3). Thomas Jeffers. Apprenticeships: the Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

[2] Foucault uses the example of the mirror, the cemetery or prison, places where social rules change and enable the intelligibility of death, sex, or any taboo.

 

Follow Ricardo Quintana Vallejo on Twitter: @realquir

 

 

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